Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Festive Fear

Christmas comes but once a year, thank the Lord (quite literally, I suppose).

However, as an atheist, I must confess to feeling the occasional twinge of jealousy. Pious Christians can enjoy the festive season in its fullest sense, immersed in their implacable belief in the nativity story and the truth of the incarnation, whereas I am just stuck with Christmas cake and Hollywood blockbusters on TV.

Funnily enough, I met one such devout fellow near my house last week. He handed me a leaflet inviting me to celebrate Christmas at a huge gathering being held at Bung Karno stadium, a venue often used for these mass, US-style acts of Christian worship. According to the leaflet, someone called Israel Houghton from Texas, presumably from one of America’s mega-churches, was topping the bill. It did not actually say whether Mr. Houghton would be touching worshippers on the forehead and making them go all wobbly and fall over backward, but I suspected that speaking in tongues would be on the agenda.

My leaflet-carrying acquaintance then tried a touch of proselytizing and told me that whereas Muslims like to pray to cold, inanimate stone, Jesus was living and breathing and very much alive inside him. He did actually have a point in this respect as Christianity does indeed differ from the world’s other main religions in its concept of the incarnation.

Jews, Muslims and deists believe in a transcendent God that is immutably perfect and outside of the physical world. Hindus and Confucians, on the other hand, believe in immanence; the idea that God is a part of this world and all around us. What makes Christian metaphysics unique is that the faithful believe that God is wholly transcendent and yet, at one moment only, became immanent in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Perhaps it is this unique duality that accounted for my new friend’s shiny-eyed ebullience.

I thanked the urban missionary and we parted ways, he absolutely assured in his faith, and I blanketed in a familiar feeling of unease and trepidation. What a feeling it must be to have such certainty in one’s life.

Freud said that devout believers are safeguarded to a high degree against the risk of certain neurotic illnesses. According to the good Viennese doctor, “Their acceptance of the universal neurosis spares them the task of constructing a personal one.”

As a nonbeliever, however, I prefer to see the existential void in more Sartre-esque terms. The absence of a higher plan or purpose does not render life meaningless but rather empowers us with freedom and makes our choices even more vital.

Reveling in the power of such self-determination, I decided to go shopping, the worship of money being as important to the festival of Christmas as that of Jesus, you understand. Thankfully, I did not have to venture far as Pejaten Village Plaza recently opened close to Metro Towers. I scoured the crowded mall for Santa but could not find the rotund reprobate anywhere. Perhaps kids these days, metabolisms accelerated by junk food and the Internet, prefer to cut out the middleman and go straight to the presents.

“Ho, Ho, Ho, and what would you like for Christmas, son?”

“Shut up and give me the PlayStation beard face, I haven’t got all day.”

Alas, queues for consumer durables and Yuletide gifts were large at the inappropriately named Village Plaza.

Down at the Village though, Santa had gone AWOL. But perhaps I should not be too disappointed at not finding a beaming, avuncular Father Christmas in a Jakarta shopping plaza. I would probably have similar trouble trying to locate three wise men and a virgin on the streets of my hometown in Britain.

Hopefully, the festive season will be peaceful and terrorist-free across Indonesia this year. In the wake of the 2000 church bombings and the recent Mumbai chaos, the government is taking no chances. Detachment 88, an antiterrorism unit funded by the United States and Australia, was recently seen on TV performing practice exercises. Balaclava-clad policeman abseiled down the side of a hotel in Bandung in preparation for the next terror outrage. That is all well and good but I would have preferred to see them going in down the chimney. Crack Santa division: always ready for action.

Can I take this opportunity to wish a merry Yuletide midwinter solstice to one and all? I hope that you manage to get away for a few days of rest and relaxation. Spare a thought for those celebrating in cold countries trapped indoors for days on end with their families. What a fate. As some bright spark once said, “Christmas is a time when you get homesick, even when you’re home.”

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Sling Shot

Last week I had to go on that familiar of missions, the Singapore visa run. Armed only with my passport and a few dollars with which to pay my visa agent and buy some duty-free falling down water at Changi Airport, I set off at some ungodly hour of the morning in order to catch the first flight of the day.
After steaming breathlessly into town and dropping off my passport, lest I should miss the Indonesian Embassy’s midday visa application deadline, I began to stroll up the iconic Orchard Road. It had been several years since I last visited the island state, which is little more than a sandbar in contrast with its huge neighbor. It was therefore time for a bit of compare and contrast.
Jakarta’s shopping (if nothing else) has improved enormously over the last decade, so there isn’t the same pressing need as there used to be for Jakarta’s moneyed sophisticates to hop across the pond for a splurge. On the other hand, I noticed that recently deceased former Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas chose to croak out his last in a Singapore hospital, a somewhat less than resounding vote of confidence in the Indonesian health-care system.
Starting at the Dhobi Gaut end of Orchard Road, my first interesting find was a sex shop. Now I certainly can’t see one of those opening in Plaza Senayan anytime soon, especially in the current climate of prudish sex-o-phobia. I decided to take a look inside, purely in the name of research, you understand.
All of the usual battery-powered companions were on sale although, interestingly, there were no movies; the complete opposite of Jakarta in other words. When I spied the Edible Male Gummy Undies I knew it was time to beat a hasty retreat. After all, these days even bras are considered by some in Indonesia to be an evil creation of Satan.
I headed out and continued my stroll down the street. Ah, the simple pleasure of being able to walk along a sidewalk; so different from the Big Durian. A stroll in Jakarta could see you run over by a motorcycle, scalded by flying noodles or falling down a gaping hole in the ground. One can amble with ease down Singapore’s wide boulevards, however, just watch out for the anti-jaywalking Nazis.
The whole street scene in fact seemed like some vision of urban utopia to this long-time Jakarta resident. It all runs like clockwork in Singapore, in marked contrast to here, where a “lack of coordination,” is the familiar, ready-made newspaper quote supplied by the city administration. This is basically bureaucratic speak for, “The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand’s doing,” and is supposed to explain why much of Jakarta resembles Beirut after a heavy shelling. In Singapore, the buses don’t asphyxiate you, the workmen actually wear hard hats, the tourist center actually contains leaflets printed in grammatically correct English and even the toilets have helpful signs in them such as, “Please mind your step, squatting pan.”
Singapore is a mercantile island though and its comparative wealth is at least partly propped up on the relative poverty of the surrounding nations. It’s therefore a pretty materialistic place when all’s said and done, a fact reflected in the slogan printed on a T-shirt that a passerby I saw was wearing: “Saw it, wanted it, threw a tantrum, got it.”
I still had a couple of hours to kill before picking up my visa and so I made a beeline for the nearest 7-11. I approached the fridge in search of liquid refreshment and … bingo! I had once again found something as yet unavailable in Jakarta’s mall-ocracy. It was called Amsterdam Navigator beer, it came in large cans and it was 8.4 percent strength.
I purchased three cans and headed off for a sit down in the park.
Possibly I was rebelling against the ostentatious displays of consumerism and designer labels at street level by making myself look as much like a homeless street drinker as possible. On the other hand, though, being able to sit in a park larger than a glorified traffic island and listen to the birds singing as I drank my malty floor cleaner made a pleasant change from Jakarta’s gray, concrete jungle.
After a pleasant hour I attempted to relocate my visa agent’s office (the Navigator beer I had drunk was perhaps slightly misnamed). An hour later I was back at Changi Airport. I’d enjoyed my day in Singapore, although if tried to live there for any length of time, I think I’d end up feeling like I was on the set of a Chinese remake of “The Stepford Wives.” Later, as I sat on my Garuda flight, the pocket of air turbulence that we hit indicated that we’d passed back through the parallel universe portal into the land of chaos.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Escape from Goat Island

Last weekend, our lovely long three-day holiday was alas not bestowed on us by the president himself in order to spur a huge party and to take the nation's mind off the impending slump of 2009. Rather it was the occasion of the Islamic holiday of Idul Adha (or Eid-Al-Adha as it's known in the sandy lands). Idul Adha commemorates the rather distressing story of Abraham (Ibrahim or Avraham) and Isaac, a story that holds a central place in all of our main monotheisms (Islam, Christianity and Judaism).

The tale should be familiar to all of course. Abraham is commanded by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac, as a test of his faith. Then, just as Abraham is about to do the deed, God tells him that the whole thing has been a bit of a prank and that Abraham doesn’t have to commit infanticide after all.

In some versions of the story, Abraham is 137 years old (a good innings when all’s said and done) and thus Isaac is a fully grown man presumably fully complicit in the sacrifice. The commonly told Christian story though is of Isaac the boy, presumably traumatized beyond tablets by his experience and probably in need of 15 years of therapy from a Galilean Freudian analyst afterwards.

The moral point of this yarn, apart from trying to teach us that the God of infinite love should also be paralyzing us with fear, was never made to clear to me at the Sunday school my parents made me attend. In fact, the devil himself comes off rather well in this sad tale as he tries to persuade Abraham not to murder the fruit of his own loins.

The city's goats haven't fared as well as even Isaac. Last week they were frolicking gaily, being petted by local kampung kids and generally lending my local market and odor even more unpleasant than it usually possesses. Come Monday evening though, these unlucky ruminants had all successfully thrown a seven on the great dice of life. Not being a vegetarian, I can't really pass comment except to say that the common theme of ritual, mortal sacrifice that links the religious story and the yearly ritual doesn't particularly fill me with any overflowing feeling of joie de vivre.

I thought I'd give the bloodletting a miss this year and instead headed out for a burn around the Thousand Islands (Pulau Seribu) with a few friends and a rickety boat. We sailed from Muara Anke, a harbour located near Pluit in the north of town last Saturday morning. The area is a rather dispiriting mix of sludge, polluted seawater and poverty that is only partially mitigated by the colorful boats that are moored there.

We set sail and eventually hit pristine waters. On our island hopping trip through the Archipelago we encountered a few points of interest including a stop at Pulau Semak Daun - Smack Down Island! (It actually means 'Leafy Bush'). On Sunday night we moored off a private island owned by the infamous KFC franchiser, supermarket mogul and one-time partner in crime (literally) of Tommy Suharto, Ricardo Gelael. The island featured some smart lodgings but was quiet and deserted, perhaps reflecting the downturn in Mr Gelael's fortunes in recent years.

Later on we moored at another private island and saw a fancy boat bearing the Telesindo logo on its side. This island, no doubt reflecting the upswing in the telecommunications industry, was quite breathtaking in its high rolling luxury. Jet skis, a restaurant and bar area, accommodation for a good two dozen and a shark aquarium were just some of the facilities enjoyed by this island's lucky owner, who thankfully wasn't there at the time to chase us off with a double-barreled shotgun. Yes, the ultimate gated community couldn't keep us riffraff out. Sat Pams (security guards) in the Thousand Islands are of a rather more mellow temperament than their more menacing counterparts in town and they let us wander around freely. We loitered a while indulging our own private island fantasies; mine involved an on-site reservoir of Martini and a secretarial college field trip.

Our final stop on a whirlwind tour led us to less selfish, environmental concerns. The Jakarta Animal Aid Network (JAAN) have set up a raptor rescue and rehabilitation centre on Kotok Island and the birds of prey in the cages there were squawking away in seeming defiance of the wealthy island dwellers across the water who would no doubt keep them as pets if given the chance.

I'll be back on terra firma for more tales of despair next week.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Up at the Crack

The news never stops in this country of course. After my Bakrie rant of a couple of weeks back our man has seen sense and decided not to drag Tempo magazine through the courts, for now. Looking at the controversial cover image of the minister’s face made out of numbers I see that in addition to the contentious 666 written on Mr. Bakrie’s forehead, a number 2 also seems to be emerging from his nose. Could this possibly be due to its perennial proximity to the presidential posterior I wonder?

This week though a rather different story caught my attention. Jakarta Governor and proud owner of a bristlingly handsome moustache, Fauzi Bowo, has hatched a dastardly, and rather desperate sounding new plan to ease traffic congestion in the city. His proposal is that from January 1st 2009, Jakarta’s rush hour will be staggered in order dissipate the usual pell-mell daily chaos. Under these new proposals, school starting times will be rolled back half an hour from 7.00am to 6.30am. In addition, office workers should start at 7.30am in North and Central Jakarta, at 8am in East and West Jakarta and at 9am in South Jakarta.

Mercifully I live in South Jakarta and I’ll take 9.00am over 7.00am thank you very much. As for schools starting at 6.30am, Mr. Bowo claims that moving the school day back half an hour will result in increased, “Freshness,” in students. Personally, if I’d had to be in class at 6.30 every morning when I was a teenager then I don’t think that fresh would have been a very apposite description of my condition. I’d probably have been so traumatized that it would have stunted my growth.

Asians generally get up a bit earlier than us indolent whiteys however. In fact, many are the times that I’ve been just drifting off to sleep after a hard night when the local mosque has started its 4.00am, Big Brother fun and games. How many people are actually in that mosque at 4.00am is an open question I suppose and alas I have absolutely no intention of getting up at that ungodly hour of God in order to research the problem. Forget it.

So will half an hour really make much of a difference to the prevailing traffic situation out there dear reader? Possibly a more effective plan, given the current lunar surface like condition of my local artery, Jl. Mampang Raya, would be to pave the city’s roads properly in the first place. A couple of hours of rain and they seem to crumble like biscuits causing massive tailbacks.

Failing that, perhaps a more ambitious metropolitan flexi time plan would help things. Start half the city working at the normal time and the other half at midday. That just might ease the traffic a bit as well as hopefully creating a Barcelona like night life as an indirect consequence (shame there’ll be no booze to drink when that happens).

It’s sheer population pressure that has driven us to such an impasse I guess. Where will it all end I wonder? In a wildly imaginative short story entitled Chronopolis, Surreal seer of the near future, JG Ballard, imagined a fate that could befall Jakarta if Mr. Bowo’s time zone plans are taken to their logical extreme. In the story, a metropolis becomes so overcrowded that its citizen’s every waking activity, from working to shopping to travelling, have to be strictly time managed and scheduled in order to avoid jams. All clocks are fitted with five coloured hands which delineate different times for the different professional classes of the population. People are forced to carry correspondingly time colour coded railway passes, have colour coded car number plates and even have to use colour coded money to avoid a stampede at the shops.

Eventually the population rebels against this surrender of human dignity to the pitiless slave driving of the clocks. In the scattered society that follows, all clocks and watches are outlawed and the story’s two central characters reflect on the situation thus:

“It’s against the law to have a gun because you might shoot someone. But how can you hurt someone with a clock?”
“Isn’t it obvious? You can time him; know exactly how long it takes him to do something.”
“Then you can get him to do it faster.”

Now clearly Indonesians, with their concept of Jam Karet (rubber time) perhaps more closely resemble this post revolutionary, clock-less society than the rigid dogmatism of Chronopolis. Getting some of this city’s residents to do things a bit faster wouldn’t necessarily be such a bad thing. Mr. Bowo’s time zoning plan however is a whole new ball game and something that I’ve never heard of before outside of Mr. Ballard’s typically prescient story.

It’s cars that we’re really talking about here though. Thinkers throughout the modern age from Marx to Sartre to Freud have noticed how technological advances meant to free us end up emasculating us. In the case of the car we see every day how urban motorists are caught in a series of escalating jams created by the easy availability of cars whose original intention was to enable us to move more freely. Trapped in our moving steel prisons we are isolated from both the natural environment and human contact.

Still, on a more positive note I read in The Globe last week that some cycle lanes should be opening up in town in the New Year. This could be the way forward although on the downside there’ll be a heavy fug of body odour hanging over our offices and schools as we all start our working days covered in sweat. Anyway, more next week, I’m off for a drive.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Lord of the Thighs

The pornography law has passed onto the statute books and we now live in a country in which extremely vague and conservative conceptions of public indecency are permitted to be enforced by extra judicial vigilante groups. Time will tell whether Indonesia will come to resemble the oppressive society across the water in Malaysia (which this week banned Muslims from the infidel practice of Yoga). Perhaps this new law though, like so many others here, will remain largely un-enforced. Given the binary encrypted Tsunamis of filth that spill out over the internet, the porn law can be seen as a rearguard action in an ultimately losing battle.

On the other hand, a more fundamentalist, firebrand version of Islam seems to be in the ascendancy here and fundamentalist religion, as we all know, is primarily about sex. Whether it’s clerics shouting over grating mosque Tannoy systems or shiny faced American evangelists, sex always looms large over proceedings like some diabolical, bikini clad Satan. War, famine, genocide, grinding poverty and environmental collapse, in contrast, barely seem to get a look in.

Sexual guilt and repression are great engines of religion of course and have helped to energize it ever since men and women first learnt to walk upright and found that their hands now fell to a natural resting position next to their genitals. Guilt and repression do not inspire humankind’s better nature though; just think of all those young men with AK-47s in one hand and a copy of the Koran in the other, sublimating their sexual tensions through militarism. Think also of the various sexual scandals involving catholic priests sexually abusing young boys in their charge as a consequence of their enforced celibacy.

Has Indonesia’s new pornography and indecency law actually changed anything out there on the streets though? I thought I’d venture forth and insert a probing thermometer between the city’s rosy cheeks in order to take its post porn law temperature.

The city’s school girls were out in force as I headed off to Hero. For a number of years now they’ve been required to wear ankle length skirts that trail rather impractically in the mud. The previous knee length numbers are now but a distant memory. Hopefully though when these brave young citizens become student activists they will lead a bikini clad, anti porn law protest down to the Hotel Indonesia roundabout.

Later on that day I decided to check out the city’s nightlife scene to see if any new sense of morality was prevailing on the dance floors of Batavia. Halfway to Loewy’s, currently the most uber-trendy joint in town, my taxi driver got out and relieved himself in a nearby ditch. Presumably under the new law he could have been arrested for exposing his family jewels in a public place. Thankfully though our refreshed driver returned to the driving seat unmolested and we continued on our way. Score one for freedom.

When I finally arrived at the achingly hip Loewy’s, the elite movers and shakers were out in force, schmoozing the night away over vats of Martini. Patrons didn’t really seem to be tending towards the conservative in their choices of clothing. A prosecutable display of bare midriffs, wobbling thighs and clinging frocks seemed to be the order of the evening among the assembled hipsters (and that was just the guys).
Indecent? Seen through the rigid lens of the new law then perhaps yes. Personally I’d be more inclined to find the ostentatious display of conspicuous wealth and elite schadenfreude rather indecent but that’s another issue. Clothing wise, there seemed to be little sense of a new, upper class piety or sobriety on display. I guess that it’s middle class moral indignation that more usually strives to uphold public virtue as opposed to the two more decadent and colourful classes that abut it on either side.

The next day, I headed down to a cheap, low class mall to see if the city’s plebian hordes had done anything to reign in their sexiness in light of the new legislation. Melawai Plaza in the Blok M area is full of budget ladies’ apparel shops and my research provided me with the perfect opportunity to pop along there and loiter around a few bra counters.

Both the clothing on sale and the young ladies browsing it seemed as coyly flirtatious as ever. I asked one of the shop girls if there’d been a decline in sales of backless tops, sequined two inch long skirts and dental floss like G strings in recent weeks but she replied in the negative. She enthused that, “Jakarta girls like to dress up if they go to a bar or disco.” Or even the supermarket it often seems to me.

So has nothing really changed? Is the new law a lame duck? Its always been a mystery to me why politicians here thought that they could make traction with this bill ahead of next year’s election. Despite what Indonesia’s electorate may profess in public, the country’s post New Order elections have shown that in the privacy of the polling booth, they have little appetite for the Islamic parties. Let’s just hope that those vigilante groups don’t materialize.

The real sex crimes in this country involve the virtual kidnapping, trafficking and enforced sexual slavery of women, allegedly with tacit support from rogue elements in the police and military. There’s also the cleric in East Java who’s just married a 12 year old girl. Let’s try and keep our eyes on the ball shall we?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Empire of Mud

As the economy plummets, Aburizal Bakrie, Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare, Indonesia's richest man (well he was before all this started) and East Java mud disaster facilitator, finds himself increasingly on the ropes. After seeking, and ultimately failing, to gain preferential treatment on Jakarta's stock markets, our man has seen the value of shares in his companies plummet. Now looking increasingly punch-drunk and liable to lash out indiscriminately, Mr Bakrie's latest ruse is to bypass the country's press law and sue Tempo magazine for defamation.

With this rather spicy tale currently dominating headlines in the capital, it was with some interest that I hobbled along to the groundbreaking ceremony at the new Bakrie funded luxury apartment complex currently taking shape on Jl. Rasuna Said. The rather portentously named Rasuna Epicentrum was hosting a little ground floor reception accompanied by the music of famous local jazzer and Glenn 'Deadly' Fredly.

I sat down and was presented with an information pack by a PR girl who then proceeded to launch into an uninterrupted 15 minute jaw about the project whilst my eyes glazed over. It seems that the ultimate academic prize in Jakarta these days is to gain a specious qualification in public relations before searching for gainful employment that allows one to lie for a living.

Anyway, my enquiries as to how the project would be completed, given the aforementioned parlous state of the Bakrie Group's finances, were gently rebuffed by our inveterate PR girl. According to her, the project has Arab guarantors which effectively clears the whole question of funding up. In fact, I've read that the Arab countries, perpetually flush with petrochemical largesse, should be snapping up financial fire sale assets the world over about now.

After the spiel I was taken upstairs into some mock up apartments. Unfortunately, half an hour of hot passion didn't ensue and I was instead treated to more eye glazing PR doublespeak by our persistent corporate shill.

Apparently the apartments have been designed around a green living concept under the nausea inducing and no doubt trademarked brand name 'Greeneration'. Energy efficient buildings are indeed going to be an important part of climate change mitigation in the future though and so any genuine efforts in this direction are to be applauded.

Apartment prices range from around US$150,000 to over $300,000, which is quite a wedge of cash when you consider the average house price here. On the other hand, you would be living right in the centre of town, an important consideration given the city's super and lovely traffic conditions. Also, I guess if you're living up on eighth floor you are less likely to have your property swamped by a rising tide of mud when Mr B's driller killers start boring holes in the car park below.

As we looked through one of the dummy apartment’s windows towards the site of one of the future Bakrie towers, I noticed that the ubiquitous Jakartan shantytown was still occupying the area. "Actually, they can't live there," my guide intoned dismissively. Well, quite clearly they can live there because quite clearly they do live there. The question is what happens when the bulldozers want to move in? Going on previous form I presume that they'll splinter the urban Kampung to matchwood, scattering grandmothers and cooking utensils everywhere before getting stuck into the foundation digging.

I was then taken to see a plastic model of how the whole complex would look after completion. Rather optimistically, it included a working monorail running down Rasuna Said next to the putative towers. Still, a bit of optimism never hurt anyone ay?

I then moved on to the freebies and exchanged my little info pack token for a plastic glass of something called Bubble Tea which looked about as flat and unhealthy as the bubble economy that has just burst. After that I headed over the road to Pasar Festival Plaza which coincidentally enough houses the Bakrie School of Management. How students can walk through the doors without giving in to the urge to spray paint the prefix "Mis-" before the final word above the door, or at least let out a little snort of derision every time they go in, I don't know.

As for Mr. Bakrie himself, time will tell if he is able to ride out the current financial and political storm raging around him or whether, as seems increasingly likely, his name is mud.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

King of the Swingers

Early last Monday I was riding my bicycle down our street on my way to work when I chanced upon a rather interesting spectacle. A local man was holding a leash in his hand, at the other end of which was a monkey dressed in a rather natty little uniform. The primate was dancing agitatedly to the distorted rhythms of his master’s cheap karaoke sound system, to the delight of the assembled local kids.

I thought for one horrible moment that I was having some kind of detox hallucination brought on by the current city wide alcohol crisis which in turn has been caused by a recent customs clampdown. Recently I’ve been having visions of myself turning into Richard E Grant’s dipsomaniacal tour de force Withnail from the movie Withnail and I. i.e. either drinking furniture polish in desperation or hammering on the doors of Kemang’s perpetually closed duty free shops with my fists bawling, “I demand to have some booze,” in an upper class English accent.

The simian sideshow was real though and I realized that I had unwittingly stumbled into what are locally known as Topeng Monyet. Basically Primates are kidnapped from their natural habitats in the forests and jungles of Indonesia, forced into anthropomorphizing little trousers and jackets and taken around the streets by vagabonds who make them perform circus tricks for money. It’s a practice that’s as loved by locals as it is loathed by expatriates who perceive the whole undertaking to be rather cruel and heartless.

Standing watching the somewhat sorry display before me I was put in mind of a rather sad and squalid Victorian freak show, so human did our little furry friend seem. The show was however marginally more entertaining than that other great Indonesian street theatre, namely the hairy, dress wearing brutes with pancaked makeup, tambourines and dead giveaway Adam’s apples that trawl through the traffic giving everyone the willies (actually, perhaps I should rephrase that).

After a few minutes of dancing punctuated by vicious yanks on the leash, a mini bicycle was produced for our urbanized tree swinger to use. The little chap proceeded to zoom back and forth on his steed before eventually simulating a crash and playing dead for a few seconds. This rather apposite Jakarta tableau gave me a few moments pause for thought and I shuddered as I recalled my own bone crunching bike accident of a couple of years back.

As our furry banana enthusiast lay prone on the asphalt like a dead Ojeg driver it dawned on me that the whole Topeng Monyet circus could possibly fulfil some valuable educational function after all. Maybe our betailed friend was sowing the seeds of evolutionary consciousness in the minds of the clapping children. Perhaps what Darwin described as our, “Arboreal past,” and a sense of our species’ position at the top of the primate pile were gaining a tentative conceptual foothold in these impressionable young brains as they watched our not so distant cousin dancing in his tiny clothes.

This is no doubt wishful thinking on my part and a pretty unlikely outcome in modern Indonesia, especially in these trying times of religious retrenchment. As I stood watching Mr. Monyet doing his best homo sapiens impression though, I could at least comfort myself with the veracity of evolutionary theory. Thankfully there is no hell for bikini clad violators of Indonesia’s new porn law to sunbathe in. Conversely, let us be comforted by the fact that there is no heaven of 72 virgins for the recently executed Bali bombers to slake their twisted lusts on. Only sweet oblivion awaits us all. Indeed, the whole 72 virgins thing is alleged to be a bit of a mistranslation in any case. According to some scholars, the real translation is 72 bunches of grapes. Not nearly as much fun although I guess Amrozi and co could trample them down and have a good old booze up….Oh dear, guess what I’m thinking about now.

A solution does seem to be marching with ill advised confidence towards my Eureka valve though. In order to able to stump up for the 400 percent price rise on a bottle of vodka I suppose I could follow the Topeng Monyet model and drag some poor creature around the streets with me on a piece of string and try raise some funds that way. Actually, given the attention and general mesmerized stares that simply being a whitey on the streets of Jakarta can elicit maybe I should just cut out the piece of string altogether, put on a little sailor suit and do a one man dance routine. That voddy’s as good as mine.

Jakarta's 47th Most Popular Blogger in Record Transfer Deal

Well for those four of you who follow this blog in its print form, I've taken the earth shattering decision of moving the column across from The JP to the new Jakarta Globe. It'll be appearing every Saturday as there's no Sunday Globe. I'm not trying to bite the hand that feeds and all respect to the JP. I just thought I'd give this new, sexy young paper a try in order to help them out :) Can I just stress that this has nothing at all to do with the increased writers fee that they've promised me. So...Saturdays from now on...

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Say It Loud....

It's been a historic week for racial politics and make no mistake. Obama's election trouncing of John McCain was of course preceded by the flying Hertfordshire hero, Lewis Hamilton, becoming Formula One's youngest and blackest champion last Sunday.

I think we had better stick with US politics though. The whole Obama shebang really did feel like one of those epochal, where-were-you when-it-happened moments of history.

Where was I? At work actually following the whole thing on the Internet. At 10 a.m., after barely an hour in the office, it was all over bar the shouting. At 12, I found a TV set and managed to catch Mr O’s victory speech. I'm sure most of you saw it yourselves. It contained the smattering of platitudes and generalizations that all speeches contain but even a hardened political cynic like me felt curiously moved. Either that or the previous night's Padang takeout was repeating on me.

A little modesty, humility and intelligence goes a long way after the monstrous arrogance and bitter disappointments of the last eight years. He even seemed to actually believe his message of reconciliation. Amazing. The speech was sober though, befitting a president elect whose national economy has just gone down the toilet.

For me though, the most enduring image came when the camera found the face of Jesse Jackson in the crowd. A few months ago, in a not totally atypical Jackson outburst, he was accidentally caught on an open microphone saying that he would like to, "Cut Obama's nuts off". There he was though, tears streaming down his face as he listened, caught up in this historic culmination of a struggle that he and Dr Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and so many others have given so much to. Oprah cried too apparently but nuts to her. I'm sure that Mr.Barrack can raise her tax (race attacks?) a touch perhaps. Mind you Lewis Hamilton is not short of a few quid either these days….sorry, I’ll stop mentioning Mr.H.

Later on that evening I headed down to the Bellagio mall in Mega Kuningan where Democrats Abroad had put on a huge victory party. As I entered, the victory speech was replaying on the huge screen that they had hung up in the lobby. Everyone was giving it with the "Yes we can"s. And then a shower of red, white and blue balloons descended from the ceiling like they do at those stage-managed party conventions and rallies. As I was lamenting the lack of any black balloons, a local Indonesian MC took to the stage in front of the screen and told us that Obama was a true son of both Indonesia and America. Then, tongue planted firmly in his cheek he announced that, "Now we know for sure that America will not invade Indonesia." Well let's certainly hope not anyway.

A friend of mine joked that Obama, in keeping with the traditional fate of African-Americans, has been given one of the worst jobs in the world cleaning up this whole mess. You can't really envy the man can you?
The Bellagio rocked hard all night and the next morning the sun rose on a new dawn and a massive hang over for me (they had been mixing tequila with beer down there at Amigos, presumably there are laws against endangering public health so recklessly).

Next year will see Indonesia also choosing a president. Alas secular, clean and progressive candidates that have the inspiring Obama factor seemed to be thin on the ground. Probably they'll stick with what they've got at the moment, which isn't tremendously exciting really but... you know... hey Ho.

An African American though. What would be the equivalent here? A Papuan becoming Indonesian president. I can't see it really. After running against an Indonesian war hero. That could be a tall order too.

The world does seem to be stuck right down in the U bend just at the moment though and you can't load all of your hopes onto the shoulders of one man of course. If Mr.O knows anything though, it’s that in order to have democracy, real democracy, everyone has to struggle. And it is a battle that never ends. The future is still unwritten though my McCain-verbal-tic friends. It's still open. Not for me though, my taxi’s just arrived and I am going down the pub.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Electric Boogaloo Pt.2

Well another painful financial week has limped to a close and the world is looking forward to a Christmas of austerity and humbug. Nintendos may be out of reach for many this Yuletide and once again kids may have to make do with an orange and a spinning top.

You've got to keep smiling though and a few financial crisis jokes may just cheer us up briefly before Metro Mad once again gets down to the business of pulling the rug out from under the happy dancing feet of your weekend. What's the difference between an investment banker and a pigeon? A pigeon is still capable of leaving a deposit on a Ferrari. Cue sound of tumbleweeds blowing down the street. Not tickled? How about this one. What's the capital of Iceland? About $10. Cue sound of an owl hooting in a copse. Oh well I tried.

The recession is on its way I guess and perhaps nothing will cheer us up. Jakarta is certain to feel its effects too but at least there is no mortgage crisis here. Some of the prefabricated housing that I’ve seen in those new complexes on the outskirts of town looks as if it would crumble to dust long before any mortgage was paid off anyway. Average Indonesians are more likely to have their hire purchase motor scooters repossessed than their houses. Also, those living under bridges and along riverbanks in the city are more likely to have their cardboard box style houses smashed up by public order officials; certainly I don’t think anyone would be particularly interested in repossessing them.

It's worth remembering how this whole sorry state of affairs started in the first place though, namely multitudes of people defaulting on their mortgages in America. Basically this means that your average working man is simply unable to afford to buy somewhere to live any more. When this comes to pass I think you have to ask yourself some serious questions about what has happened to society over the last 20 years. Life can be tough in the West too despite the paved with gold image that many in Asia have of the Occident.

Changing the subject to only marginally less depressing matters, some of you may recall last week's column in which I related the sad saga of most of our household appliances being fried in a PLN Power surge. This unfortunate incident has solicited a few e-mails in my inbox this week.

A Mr. RT (married to Mrs. RW perhaps) wrote to me to say, "Down here in lightning alley (Cinere) I've already lost multiple electronic gadgets power supplies plus a cable modem and a router." My commiserations Sir. Mr. RT also goes on to ask me what we have subsequently had installed in our house to prevent a recurrence of our PLN lightning strike. Well Mr. RT, something has certainly been installed, a kind of cut-out switch/fuse if I understand correctly although the exact details are a bit too much for the machinations of my Pentium II brain to handle.

Mr. RT seems to live in one of those areas of town in which the voltages are particularly erratic and I'm sure that many of you will be familiar with mini electric shocks from metal surfaces of unearthed appliances. Some of you may secretly quite enjoy them.

I also received a slightly more heartening e-mail from Mr. Daniel Smets who told me that after a power surge in his area he, "Had damage of about Rp.40 million". Mr Smets then went on to send PLN complaints consisting of, "Many, many e-mails and 1000 telephone calls without reaction. Finally I sent a faxed letter with the final words 'Okay, I will put this story in the Jakarta Post.' A few hours later we had a meeting in my office and finally, after one week, PLN paid all back."

Apparently miracles really can happen and it's all thanks to the good old JP. It seems perhaps strange that PLN, holding as they do a monopoly on power generation in this country, would care. I suppose in our publicity and public relations industry polluted third millennial psyches it's the only threat that seems to count for anything in this world. “Bad publicity! Oh no! We'd better pay him back!” I’d like to point to Mr. Smets though that sending me that e mail was perhaps not such a great idea. His story has now finally been published in the JP you see and PLN are perhaps going to want their money back. If they don’t get it I guess they may maliciously zap Mr.S’s place with some more volts.

Actually, now that I come to think about it, maybe I could leverage my column to issue a few threats of my own. Something along the lines of, "Dear Izzi Pizza, my Marinara was woefully low on mushrooms last week, I’d like free Lasagne Bolognese and a bottle of Aussie red wine for a period of one year or else I will print all in the Jakarta Post.” Right, time to fire up my hotmail….

Monday, October 27, 2008

Rock down to, Electric Avenue

In no uncertain terms the world has been put through the mincer during the last month. Now that free-market neo-liberalism has self-destructed and the ideological framework that has underpinned Western society for the last 30 years has fallen like a house of cards, I guess a few beers are in order. Let's drink to the future.

Now that the government has bailed out the nefarious dealings of private sector finance, some Americans have the "reds under the bed" fear that their country has embarked upon a socialist nationalization program. On the contrary though, the whole affair more closely resembles the privatization of the state itself as it offers up its resources for finance capital to plunder once more.

People's hopes for Obama are going to take a serious dent when, upon election, he finds that the cupboard is bare. Thirty years of deregulated markets, eight years of Dubya and this is what happens. As that scabrous old coot PJ O'Rourke once remarked, "Republicans are the party that says government doesn't work, then they get elected and prove it."

Let's not get carried away with world events though. It was rather less grandiose matters, in fact, that took center stage at Chez Metro Mad last week. Like global stock markets, Metro Towers underwent a meltdown of its own, and it was literal rather than a metaphorical. Sitting in the office last Monday I was called by a housemate who told me that our maid had just contacted him to inform that all of our electrical appliances at home had smoke billowing out of them. Hmmm, not good. Apparently the poor girl had been running around in a lather of fear trying to unplug everything at the risk of electrocuting herself. There'll be a handsome Rp 250 bonus for her at the end of this month, that's for sure.

Upon returning home I was confronted with the usual gaggle of rubberneckers who instantly rock up whenever anything vaguely out of the ordinary occurs on the street. From the middle of this throng emerged a PLN employee complete with a smart emblemized baseball cap and a clipboard. He informed me, with a big grin, that there had been a power surge at our place (always with the smiles in Indonesia, as if that's going to sugar the pill. "Sorry Mister, you're paralyzed, you will spend the rest of your life in a wheelchair," grin, smirk, beam).

Anyway, to cut a short story even shorter, a fault outside our house (and I think that the word "outside" is terribly important here) had caused the normal 220 V supply to spike at a TV frying 330 volts of throbbing electrical fun. Presumably this wasn't deliberate; one would hope PLN hasn't embarked on a new promotional scheme involving pumping extra electricity into people's homes at no extra charge.

After much erecting of ladders and twiddling around with those funky screwdrivers with flashing lights on the inside, our rictus grinning sparky declared the problem to be fixed and we all stepped inside to survey the damage. The initial prognosis on our electrical appliances wasn't too good. In our large house of four bedrooms we had lost: 2 ACs, 3 TV sets, a computer, a stereo system and some lamps. It later turned out that, thankfully, many of the power plug transformers had been fried, as opposed to the actual appliances themselves. But we were still down on the deal. My computer had been saved by my voltage regulator (or so it seemed).

Our maid suggested that we give our smiling sparky a tip. Instead though, I suggested that he go back to head office and find us Rp 20,000,000 (US$2.013) which we could use to replace our frazzled gear with. Fat chance of that happening I guess. The unhappy consumer has little recourse in this country when something like this happens, and given the general condition of much of the electrical wiring here, I reckon it must happen a fair bit.

There's no point trying to butt heads with a monopolistic behemoth like PLN who have plenty of troubles of their own at the moment. Perhaps they could waive this month's bill as a gesture of good faith. I think that would be a fair response in light of the fact that their faulty wiring almost caused our entire house to burn down.

Any smart-asses with well-meaning advice and tips about what we should have done to protect our drum from the great surge, feel free to drop a few comments onto the MM blog. Anyone wishing to gloat at our misfortune is also most welcome to post up a few sneering ripostes.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Let There Be Light

Well shiver me timbers! I recently had the opportunity to return to the high seas and once again steamed manfully out of Sunda Kelapa one salty Sunday morning. I'm getting a bit ahead of myself however. First things first. I had to traverse Jakarta by road in order to reach the city's deep and diabolically diseased briny.

The early Sunday morning Jakarta ambience is something I usually miss for reasons which are no doubt identical to your own lack of enthusiasm for the 7 a.m. that follows hard on the heels of a good rocking Saturday night. The city is at its daylight hours freshest on Sunday mornings though and as I drove uptown one could almost believe that one lived in a metropolis in which some semblance of order and restraint prevailed.

My taxi headed up through the quiet streets of south and central Jakarta on its way to the sea. Interestingly, someone had been tampering with the 'Tarif Bawah' (low fare) stickers on the back window of my cab. By discarding the 'B' in 'Bawah' and rearranging the remaining letters, some cheeky swine had made my taxi say 'Tarif Waah!'. Thankfully I don’t think it was the driver himself as his meter was ticking over at quite a sedate speed.

When we reached Jalan Thamrin we hit (not literally) the Sunday sporting types who, utterly lacking in exertion, cycle and jog down the centre of the road at about 1 km per hour. These people are clearly not in it for the exercise and I believe their sole motivation is to make the party animals that spill out of Kota's clubs and discos after pulling an all nighter feel even more exhausted and ill than they do already.

As I continued my cab journey I chanced upon the most delicious site up near Monas. Some of you may have read in the paper in recent months about Jakarta's new roller-skating police division. I had been initially skeptical about this, believing the story to be a hoax. Most of the policeman that I see on the streets seem a touch too portly to be attempting such a kamikaze feat.

There they were though, large as life, weaving in and out of the joggers and cyclists on their hot wheels like members of Village People. Weaving in and out of cars and motorcycles though may prove to be a more difficult undertaking.

After reaching the lovely Marina Batavia and setting sail with the good Captain Hans, it was time to put skating cops behind us and enjoy the turgid delights of Jakarta Bay once more. This time we were heading out to one of the nearest of the Thousand Islands, Pulau Damar Besar, alternatively known as Pulau Edam due to the fact that Jakarta's Dutch governor had a mansion here over a century ago.

The seas we encountered on our outward journey were, alas, disgustingly full of trash. At various points on the 15 km long trip a flotsam of instant noodle and detergent packets guided us towards the mounds of rubbish that piled up around the Pulau Edam jetty itself. It was all very depressing and one has to venture a lot further afield, deep into the Thousand Island chain in fact, before things become cleaner.

Despite the rubbish around the jetty, the island does have some fascinating points of interest. Most spectacularly, there's an old steel Dutch lighthouse, still in operation, which dates back to 1879. Myself and my fellow passengers were feeling game and so we scaled the spiral staircase up through the 12 levels to the round balcony that rings the top of the Lighthouse, just below the light itself. The view of the tiny island and the sea below from here was truly spectacular, if a little scary for those of a vertiginous disposition.

Also on Edam Island lies the ruins of the Dutch governor's mansion which can be found in the middle of the island's small wood. We trekked off to find it and were taken by the moody grandeur of the remaining roofless walls set against the dim light of the forest interior. The ghosts of the past seemed to be circling around us.

Jakarta's very own Mr. Moustache, Governor Bowo, should perhaps consider reviving this tradition and rebuilding a pad for himself and all of his little Bowos out here. A local TV station could start a new reality show called Governor's Island. They could assemble a small population on the island of, say, 20 Jakarta taxi drivers. It would then be the governor's task to provide them all with amenities and housing before they died. He would have to succeed in this task before we let him back loose on a capital city of 15 million people. If I approach SCTV with this idea they'll bite my bloody hand off I'm telling you. I wanna see that boy digging a latrine...

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Say It with Flowers

Thank the Lord that another holiday season has limped to a close in a colourful blaze of dangerously substandard fireworks, chilli sauce induced heartburn and 17 km long road tailbacks. If you returned to your home village, I hope you had a lovely time and managed to discourage your various relatives from returning with you to the Big Durian by informing them honestly that Jakarta's streets are not, in fact, paved with gold but something altogether browner and sludgier.

If you attempted to drive out of town for reasons other than that of filial duty then what the hell were you thinking? Actually, what the hell was I thinking when I agreed to accompany a friend on a drive up to Puncak on the Wednesday of Idul Fitri itself. The journey up into the hills wasn't too bad however and the drizzle only added to the delicious coolness and relief of reaching an altitude superior to the capital's warm fart ambience.

We were going to stay in one of Puncak's huge holiday villa complexes for a couple of days. The one we were staying in was called Kota Bunga (Flower City). After a nightcap or three and a hearty sleep I awoke and went for a stroll in order to familiarise myself with the Kota Bunga experience first hand in all of its prefabricated, garish hideousness.

The complex covers a huge area and is arranged into neat suburban cul-de-sacs of houses that are seemingly exactly the same as the full-time Jakarta pied-a-terres of the families who come to stay here. The only discernible difference would possibly be the vibrant hues of the houses’ exteriors and the postmodern mishmash of cutesy architectural designs that proliferate like a Walt Disney acid trip.

The Flower City seemed to be mainly populated by aspirational Chinese Indonesian families of a familiar type (just to delve into the unconscionable world of racial stereotypes for a moment here). Big Mercedes, Dad in a bright nylon T-shirt, Mum's hair extravagantly coiffured into a vertiginous gravity defying quiff and two Nintendo brained children having ice cream and noodles shovelled down their wide bore gullets by a Javanese girl in a nurses uniform.

Stereotypes don't always hold though. I was actually visiting the flower city with the Chinese Indonesian friend of my own and his girlfriend. He is in his 40s and as yet unmarried and so doesn't really fit into the charming family unit model depicted above. He does however usually try to avoid meeting these bi-ethnic nuclear families due to the endless enquiries as to why he hasn't got hitched yet that repeatedly punctuate the conversation like a skipping CD.

Strolling around Kota Bunga's yellow brick road type boulevards it became clear that any expression of West Javanese culture had been tastefully airbrushed from this theme park in search of a theme. Admittedly there was an area in the complex called Kampung Budaya (Cultural Village) although its cultural reach didn't seem to extend beyond an overpriced KFC and a swimming pool full of urinating kids.

Further up the hill we came across the focal point of Flower City, a lake full of banana boats and a mini Mississippi steamer. Around the edge, a post-modern apocalypse of ersatz Greek friezes, old English lamp standards and mock European architecture all clashed in tasteless hyper reality, stripped of their original meanings and transplanted into this toy town fantasy. Pride of place though went to the scale mock up of Mount Rushmore that perplexingly loomed 30m high over the lake. The chiselled faces of the four US presidents surveyed the scene before them sternly as if about to pass judgement.

Later that evening we drove down the road to another Puncak mega villa complex, this one called Green Apple, where loud music blared over fake bright yellow castle turrets and battlements whilst hordes of Green Apple residents shopped for cheap T-shirts and high cholesterol snacks.

A more intense vision of hell I had never seen... until the next day that is when it was time to drive back to town. We got the timing wrong and ended up in traffic jam Armageddon as we descended down the hills. This must be what really happens in hell. You sit in a four-hour traffic jam, shouting imprecations at the dashboard, before reaching your fiery destination and burning for a few hours. You then stand up, dust yourself down, receive a new set of car keys from the Devil himself and start the whole process again.

I need a holiday.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Ego, Superego, Eid.

Well, the holiday season is finally upon us and not a moment too soon. As the globe turns to fiscal custard before our eyes I think we could all do with a few days of laughing, feasting and well earned breaking before the coming decade-long depression.

Perhaps this timely coincidence of religious ritual and capitalist free market meltdown has been pre-ordained by God himself in his greatness. If one can interpret tsunamis and earthquakes as divinely ordained punishment then why can’t global financial crises also be congruent with the Lord’s anger? Maybe Allah's on my side after all and is signaling his displeasure at the values of greed, over consumption and general pursuit of wealth forgetting all but self that our money obsessed generation have internalized.

Yes, maybe the Lord above yearns for a more egalitarian society too. Certainly ideas of financial fairness and a disdain for interest on loans and usury can be found in the holy texts. However this notion, as with so many other ostensibly moral religious ideas and precepts, has been subsequently evacuated of meaning and turned into the hollow hypocrisy of the Sharia banking system under which interest is simply renamed and re-categorized as service charges and the like.

If God wishes a more socially responsible and equitable society though he'll be waiting until the second coming (actually I may be getting my religions mixed up here). This week saw far right Republican freaks voting against Bush's bailout package on the grounds that it represented the first step towards some kind of left wing, socialist nationalization program.

The reality surely is that the transfer of hundreds of billions of dollars of public money into the avaricious mitts of private financiers with very few preconditions attached will only serve to bolster the inherent instability of our so-called advanced free market, roulette wheel of a system.

If any good comes out of this whole sorry bailout debacle it will be the public finally seeing that the emperor is wearing no clothes, seeing that the way our banking system socializes debt and privatizes profit is supremely undemocratic.

It’s a system that has now failed and just maybe the champagne swigging financial speculators will become similar objects of public derision and hatred as commies were in the West during the last century.

Can new political movements emerge from the rubble though or is our society just too atomized and technologically sedated to get its collective sh*t together?

Enough of the banking sector though. As the Idul Fitri holiday draws to a close its time to reflect and meditate upon the good that life has brought us. And if some poor Pembantu (maid) toiling away in Jakarta for a pittance can squeeze herself through a 2 1/2 inch gap in a train window and suffer temperatures approaching that of the core of Venus for 15 hours as she slowly travels back to central Java to visit a family that she only gets to see once every six months and can give thanks for the experience then I think we can all be jolly grateful for our lot in life. "At least I haven't got a mortgage," she is probably thinking to herself.

But enough of the preachy sermonizing. Perhaps I should feel lucky…unfortunately I don't particularly. However, I am willing to give unbridled thanks to the creator for blessing me with the bottle of vodka that sits in front of me right now. Admittedly it didn't descend from the heavens and I had to go and purloin my magic Aqua from a shop in Kemang, but perhaps it was divine guidance that led me there.

Jakarta has been blissfully empty this Idul Fitri of course, as it is every year. I say blissfully although in fact it's not that much fun seeing as so much is closed.

The idea of the Mudik (annual exodus home) is an interesting one though. I already discussed the treadmill of fasting and gluttony that takes hold here during Ramadan a couple of weeks ago in MM. After reading my scabrous and potentially blasphemous analysis, a friend told me that, in fact, death rates rise here during Ramadan as the cycle of fasting and scoffing takes its toll on the old and weak.

That's nothing though compared with some of these marathon journeys back to home villages. Car pileups, marathon overloaded motor scooter journeys, train carriages so full that passengers can't even fight their way to the toilet during the 20 hour trip, buses plunging into ravines, airport cancellations. These are Homeric odysseys of stamina and endurance. It can be no surprise that, once home, these weary travelers can't face the return journey to Jakarta for up to a fortnight later.

Anyway, happy New Year everyone. I'm off to clean the kitchen myself, what with the maid gone, impressive huh?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Metro vs. Metro

In the latest of an occasional series of columns about the parlous state of the city's transportation system, I thought that I'd venture out for a spin on one of the city's Metro Mini buses. You know the ones: those oddly shaped, orange guided missiles that steam around Jakarta's streets terrorizing and annoying other road users and pedestrians in equal measure.

Metro Minis, along with their green and white brothers, the Kopajas, are a familiar sight on the city's main arteries. I occasionally like to catch a Metro Mini for a 30 minute jaunt to Blok M for a shop which never fails to draw a few witticisms from the seemingly 14-year-old chain-smoking Konek (bus conductor) as he collects my fare.

The Metro Minis generally come in for a lot of stick from Jakarta's commuters. The drivers tend to block junctions and impede other road users by crawling at a snails pace around certain tight sections of road. The bus stops may as well not be there at all as your average Metro Mini will stop absolutely anywhere in search of that elusive extra passenger.

In their defense though, Metro Mini drivers and conductors not paid a salary and thus have to trawl for every single passenger they can get. If they were paid a wage like bus drivers in other countries then there would be no need for them to stop in the middle of junctions, provoking a fanfare of aggrieved car horns as they do so.

It would thus seem that the elites in charge are to blame. Their cheapskate approach to public services and amenities are once more in evidence here. If less money was skimmed off the top of the city budget then maybe we wouldn't have to put up with these loose cannons of mass transportation. I mean a coat of bright orange paint can't really hide the fact that these battered and bruised monsters belch lung scouring, eye stinging smoke into the environment and are so old they were probably left behind by the Japanese after World War II.

The issue of road safety is something else though and it is harder to excuse the MM drivers for tooling around like Lewis Hamilton after a heavy crack bender on purely financial grounds. They should perhaps go a bit easier on the Extra Joss and Krating Daeng energy drinks. Then again perhaps it's the cigarettes. Many drivers only need one match to start them off in the morning before a long day of chaining one cigarette off the other, punctuated by unpleasant expectorations of what we Brits call, "Dockers omelettes,” through the cab window.

Night-time brings its own Metro Mini hazards too as the powerful 2 Watt headlights and half a Watt taillights (which are obscured by thick black clouds of exhaust anyway) are switched on to full beam, turning the MMs into the invisible Stealth bombers of the streets.

All of this being the case, maybe it's safer to be inside a Metro Mini than outside of one. That's what I tell myself whenever I board one anyway. Today I jump on the bus and jam myself into a seat that gives me about 3 cm of space for my legs. The corrugated metal floor starts to heat up my feet and I settle into the full MM first class experience.

The city administration apparently wants to get petit bourgeois types out of their cars and onto public transportation. There's not much chance of that happening if the options are the overcrowded Busway or these old orange garbage cans on wheels. Class divisions are certain to continue to keep the moneyed off public transportation (that and the lack of air conditioning).

It's not impossible though to get middle-class people to give up driving into town if there's a viable working alternative. To take an example I'm familiar with, if you were to step on a London Tube train late in the evening the first thing that would strike you (apart from the appalling smell of stale urine perhaps) would be the amount of ‘posh’ people traveling home.

Back on our MM, a busker clambers on board with his Rp.50,000 acoustic guitar. The type it's impossible to tune properly. The metal strings cut into our busker's calloused fingers like cheese wire as he begins to sing. The voice isn't too bad although the mechanical limitations of his instrument begin to pall after a while.

Soon after this, the hawkers begin to board the bus with their cornucopia of knickknacks: pens, lighters, water and seven-week old squares of tofu. It's not much of a way to make a living and most of them traipse through the bus and straight out the back door like lemmings, hardly even stopping to see if anyone actually wants to buy their tat.

Eventually my stop arrives. Although it’s not much of a stop really as I, like most of my fellow Metro Mini passengers, are forced to leap kamikaze style into the traffic whilst the thing is still moving.... and there are people who laugh at me for riding a bicycle around Jakarta.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Allaaaaaaaah's Snack Bar

Idul Fitri's coming, the geese are getting fat. Well maybe not the geese perhaps but the population in general almost certainly. It's long been a fact of life in Jakarta that during the, "fasting," month, more food is consumed than at any other time of the year.

Far from Ramadan being a time to distance oneself from corporeal appetites and focus one's thoughts on the divine, the holy month in Jakarta is a time of inflation, unexpected traffic jams at odd times and, above all, heroic feats of fast breaking gluttony.

Stroll into any shopping mall food court just after 6 p.m. and you could be mistaken for thinking that you blundered into some crazed Coney Island hotdog eating contest only with the dogs replaced by fried rice and the time-honored charms of the Baso ball.

If you can find anything left to chow down on you'll then have the challenge of finding somewhere to sit among the assembled Sambal-oholics. The gustation continues in earnest into the wee small hours as hungry followers of the world's fastest-growing faith try and shovel in an amount of carbohydrates that would have top Olympian Michael Phelps reaching from the Pepsobismol.

Why the calorie levels go off the scale to the extent that they do during the fasting month is anyone's guess. Perhaps it's like Catholic schoolboys and self abuse. The prohibition only makes them want to do it more.

After the bull seals have gorged and built up reserves of fat that should see them through a hard winter's sitting in traffic, it's off home to watch a few Sinetron soap operas in which the usual philanderers and white-collar criminals are now suddenly seen sporting religious garb, a pious overlay that only serves to add a layer of deviousness to their skullduggery.

Fasting and then gorging like this leave a bad taste in the mouth (that’ll be the Baso) in a country where malnutrition still runs rife. Many in far flung provinces don't have the option of the 6 p.m. bloat out and sleep on empty stomachs, regardless of their religion.

Of course there is the Muslim tradition of giving alms to the poor during Ramadan but you sometimes wonder who extracts the most benefit out of this, the poor receiving their paltry kilo of rice or the rich whose consciences are salved by such annual displays of extremely modest largesse.

Certainly the poor of East Java didn't fare very well this week, 21 of them dying in a stampede of thousands as they try to get their calloused mittens on a miserable Rp.40,000.

Of course from the perspective of an infidel atheist (who is kind to small animals I might add) science is an important lens through which to view the strangeness of religious rituals such as fasting. Evolutionary biology and anthropology tell us that the ascetic rigor and exclusivity of the world's three main monotheisms originated in one of the world's harshest environments (outside of the Arctic Circle). Conversely, more fertile, tropical areas of the planet tend to give rise to more inclusive, laid-back polytheistic religions.

This can be no coincidence surely. Indonesia's easy-going Epicurean fertility tends to the latter but has had the strictness of the former overlaid over the top as an inflexible moral template in recent centuries. The harsh mindset of the desert doesn't come easily here and it's perhaps this mismatch between intention and desire that has led to the country's delusional, dishonest and corrupt social and political culture.

But that's enough theorizing for now. Actually thinking again about the Arctic Circle, it's amazing that the Eskimos didn't come up with something even more totalitarian than our desert influenced monotheisms. Those icy winds should surely have put some steely zeal in their hearts. I guess the fasting would be a problem though if there were six months of daylight at a time. A crash diet like that could have serious consequences although possibly the rotund Gus Dur would still be going strong when the sun finally set after half a year.

Thankfully this year the FPI (Islamic Popular Front) have again been quiet and have refrained from smashing up bars with big sticks. The FPI’s blinkered and childishly reductive interpretations of their religion are clearly a treasonous insult to the traditions of scholarship and debate that lie at Islam's birth.

Unfortunately though the pornography bill, a draconian piece of legislation designed to stop people kissing their wives in public or wearing skimpy outfits, looks set to be passed during the next week as, and I quote,” A Ramadan gift," to the people. Indonesia's politicians certainly know all about gifts that's for sure, although usually they are the kind given in brown envelopes. On the bright side though, I'm looking forward to mass bikini clad anti porn bill protests in the New Year. The Jakarta Post this week summed up the whole controversy brilliantly with a perhaps unintentionally punning headline that read," Resistance Mounts Against Porn Bill". Happy Christmas.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Fart of Darkness

I was recently lucky enough to be able to put some distance between myself and Jakarta's boggy boulevards. Leaving “Dry” land behind, I ventured out onto the high seas for a day's drinking bourbon on deck in the hot sun whilst turning a virulent shade of lobster pink.

Traditionally, the city's bourgeois weekend yachtsmen have moored their fabulously expensive toys at Ancol Marina. However, a few months ago, the new Batavia Marina opened the business just next to the traditional cargo docks at Sunda Kelapa in the north of town. This new Marina boasts a pristine new building which contains a bar, a restaurant, a billiards room and a full conference hall. The contrast between this glittering high-class clubhouse and the ragged trousered, weather-beaten old coves with dental work like burnt out villages who unload the battered old ships next door couldn't be more marked but that's Jakarta to a tee I guess. The perennial highlife-lowlife contrast.

My friend the captain, the good Mr Hans, is a long-time German expatriate. With a beard full of barnacles and many years of sailing experience behind him Mr. Hans had some amazing yarns on the subject of piracy on the ocean wave which he spun with great enthusiasm as we skipped across the diamond sea.

In fact though, the sea wasn't actually very diamond like until we were well out of Jakarta Bay. The two or three km of ocean closest to the shore aren’t so much diamond as diarrhoea. It never ceases to amaze me when I see kids swimming through the sludge at Ancol beach whilst a Chernobyl-esque power station belches industrial waste in the middle distance and estuaries of turds spill out into the open sewer of the sea. Er.. I'm sorry; I hope I haven't put you off your Sunday lunch.

Rather optimistically, one of our number elected to come on the boat with his fishing rod. His line baited with finest supermarket squid, he cast his line into the sludgy industrial toxins of Jakarta Bay as we headed further out. Funnily enough he caught nothing whatsoever during the entire trip although I guess there was always an outside chance of snagging a six-foot long radioactive mutant with two heads and four tails.

The fish weren't biting however and so I turned to our sea captain for entertainment and a few tales of yore. He confirmed that navigating the waters around Indonesia could often be a risky business due to the large number of nefarious nautical types ready to pounce at the first available opportunity.

Indonesia's seas, some of the most pirate ridden on the planet, hit the news a decade ago during the financial crisis when economic hardship caused crime on the ocean wave to rocket. Various tales of cruise ships held to ransom by desperate local fishermen and the like surfaced at the time.

Captain Hans assured me that piracy in Indonesian waters has decreased somewhat since those desperate days but that there are still plenty of Jolly Roger hoisters out there ready to chance their arm. Sailors consequently need to keep their wits about them at all times even though pirates in this country are much less likely to have guns on them than their peers in the Philippines.

There are various danger signs to watch out for apparently including boats some distance off that appear to be moving parallel to your own. This technique is used by pirates to try and match and gauge their target’s speed before attacking. Also sailors should beware if there's no one on the deck of a nearby ship ready to exchange a friendly wave.

Our captain has apparently had various narrow escapes in his time. He once had to smash his way through a ring of smaller boats surrounding him. Another time he had to emerge from below deck screaming like a banshee with a large kitchen knife in his hand in order to scare off some would-be attackers. On another occasion he saw off a suspicious boat by brandishing a length of tubing as if it was a rifle which evidently, at the distance they were at, fooled these would-be assailants into thinking twice about assailing the good captain’s vessel.

I was starting to feel a trifle nervous after all these stories. Eventually we moored off the coast of one of the nearest of the Pulau Seribu (Thousand Islands) and swam through the clearer waters onto the tiny island.

About 30 local Jakartans were packing up ready to depart as we arrived. They had been enjoying their annual day trip out to the Thousand Islands although seemingly hadn't found any buried treasure. For them it was enough to have a nice swim in some clear water without catching some interesting new skin disease presumably.

They soon set sail in their overcrowded, creaky old wooden crate of a vessel; its filthy, spluttering superannuated outboard motor shattering the peace for miles around. Pretty much the oceangoing equivalent of one of Jakarta's orange Metro Mini buses. And good luck to them too. Bloody 60 foot long luxury catamarans draped with bikini clad lovelies. Who needs ‘em?

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Stairway to Heaven

The Bali bombers’ saga is currently limping onwards towards it squalid and inevitable conclusion. A hail of bullets should soon be offloaded at its three unrepentant protagonists, after a final trio of Gudang Garam cigarettes I shouldn’t wonder. Amrozi, Imam Samudra and Ali Gufron have been tying themselves in logical knots in recent weeks, protesting the death penalty one moment and embracing martyrdom the next.

For example, Gufron and Samudra recently signed a letter stating, "It is forbidden for me to accept execution because killing a Muslim is a cowardly and criminal act and is very sinful." Why anyone’s supposed to give a battery operated shag about what these murderers can or can't accept isn’t made explicitly clear in the text of the letter but anyway, Allah’s own grim reapers blithely continue, “Those who have planned and intentionally commit it will provoke God's wrath and curse and will be sent to hell for all eternity." Give yourself three gold stars and a pat on the back if you’ve spotted the 747 sized flaw in this argument, namely that, along with many Australians, plenty of Muslims also died in the Bali blasts.

Moreover of course, Sharia Law, a system supported by the Bali three, supports the death penalty. Capital punishment appears to be advocated by the Qur'an itself in the following verse. "If anyone kills a person, unless it be for murder or spreading mischief in the land, it would be as if he killed all people." (Qu'ran 5:32). The phrase, "spreading mischief in the land," in particular suffers from the typical vagueness inherent in our two millennia old monotheisms and their accompanying holy books and has been used to justify all kinds of murder down through the centuries.

Casual conversations with friends and letters to the Jakarta Post in recent weeks have depressed me somewhat in their support for the death penalty. The Bali bombing easily excites emotions of course, especially the lack of repentance expressed by its perpetrators. Most of these angry Westerners looking forward to the three executions come from enlightened, strongly secular countries however in which the use of the death penalty has long been outlawed (the good old US of A and Ol' Sparky would be a notable exception here).

I would suggest that it ill befits critics of fundamentalist Islam to advocate a central tenet of its ideology. The replication of the original act of murder in the form of capital punishment is philosophically and ethically problematic. Surely we should be seeking to rise above a legalized and codified form of revenge. As Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye will make the world go blind”, maybe that’s why he wore glasses.

Advocates of the death penalty claim that it acts as a deterrent, a fact that isn't borne out by the statistics. Detractors such as myself would say that capital punishment works against our evolving sense of morality and human rights and leads to a culture of violence and bloodlust.

Unfortunately though, the problems with life imprisonment for the Bali Three are both the creaking machinations of the Indonesian justice system and the often porous nature of jails here. The bombers in question presumably don't have the financial wherewithal for a Tommy Suharto style custodial sentence: puffing cigars in a specially constructed jailhouse Jacuzzi surrounded by bikini clad lovelies (allegedly). There is, however, the very real danger that these three stooges will be regarded as heroes by those surrounding them and may even eventually be sprung from their cells.

So what to do, what to do? How to punish appropriately in this case? I guess they could always be tied to a chair with their eyes clamped open like Malcolm in A Clockwork Orange whilst being made to watch Australian soap operas and American TV evangelists all day long. That would give them something to chew on; I can almost hear the bloodcurdling screams now.

For those of you still sticking with your firing squad fantasies of vengeance however, I would urge you to at least think creatively. There are many ways to administer the ultimate sentence. Burning, boiling to death, the breaking wheel, crucifixion (line on the left, one cross each), disembowelment, drawing and quartering, electrocution, flaying, garroting, gassing, guillotine, hanging, impalement, lethal injection, marooning, nitrogen asphyxiation (apparently the most painless, humane way to die), poisoning, sawing in half, firing squad, Phil Collins compact disc on repeat, slow slicing, starvation, stoning... I mean I could go on.

Marooning would be a particularly apposite method for the Indonesian Archipelago I reckon. Perhaps Suharto's infamous gulag, Buru Island, one-time penal home of legendary author Pramoedya Ananta Toer, could be revived.

We could dump our jolly Jihadis on the beach there with only a six foot tall Tupperware container of bacon sandwiches, 50 liters of Jack Daniels and 3 Ozzie surfboards for company. Alas this would probably lead to some ghastly media interest, perhaps even an MTV created reality show called Terrorist Island or something: first martyr in Paradise wins an advertising endorsement contract with Honda.

By far the best course of action as far as I'm concerned would be for us to lock Messrs Amrozi, Samudra and Gufron away securely, ignore them and live in peace and harmony with each other regardless of religion, race or creed for all eternity, amen. I suspect that Terrorist Island is the more likely outcome though.
Well if the football’s not on I’m going to need some alternative entertainment.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Lame, Set and Match

Lovers of life's ludic side and of the ennobling spirit of gladiatorial jousting that takes place in the sporting arena haven't had much to smile about in Indonesia of late. The country achieved its gold medal in the Olympics admittedly but apart from that it's been a pretty poor show.

I hardly know where to start with this week's querulous explosion of indignant fury but will take a stab at the football first. English Premier League fans, of which there are an awful lot in this country, have been left sitting with their collective thumbs up their backsides for a second season running while the murky machinations of standard Indonesian business practice grind to a familiar halt.

Last season, soccer enthusiasts were forced to change cable providers to the hapless Astro at the last minute (actually several minutes after the season had started). The Malaysia based company had acquired the exclusive rights to the EPL and held total sway over those wanting to enjoy Manchester United and Chelsea spend a combined total equivalent to the national debt of several African countries in their bid for glory. Astro also promptly removed all free English soccer broadcasts from Indonesia's terrestrial channels, depriving Indonesia's soccer loving masses of some free entertainment. This brought the country into line with England itself and its pay-per-view television regime tightly controlled by the jackbooted dictatorship of Rupert Murdoch from his secret volcano lair in the Pyrenees.

At least Astro had bought the EPL rights for two seasons though... or so everyone thought. It turns out however that Astro have now lost the broadcasting rights to a company called Aora, another Johnny come lately that no one has ever heard of before. Currently, with the season well under way, most people are still without their beloved football as Aora shambles out of the starting blocks two weeks after the gun has gone off.

Aora are offering cable subscribers a whopping 12 channels (be still my beating heart!) Four of which are dedicated to the Olympics (already finished) and a further two to ESPN and Stars Sport. This leaves a massive six channels of Oprah Winfrey for the ladies presumably. Still interested? Super. Rp.1.7 million and Aora's yours for the year. Oh, just one more thing, you have to transfer the Rp.1.7 million first and Aora promise to be round within three days with the decoder. There's one born every minute apparently.

Meanwhile, in a truly audacious twist of Kafka-esque late capitalist bureaucracy, Astro are requiring a Rp.400,000 fee for the cancellation of their service. I had to close the curtains and lie down in a darkened room for half an hour when I heard that one.

At least the Olympics were being screened by TVRI though. I could surely enjoy the Beijing games and the magnificent performances of the British team who did all of us Limeys proud this year couldn't I?

Alas TVRI's Olympic coverage proved to be some of the most inept broadcasting that I've ever witnessed on Indonesian TV (and that's saying something). TVRI apparently don't have the money to invest in an autocue as most of their presenters could be seen clearly reading from pieces of paper. One of the female presenters would even habitually follow the text with her index finger. However she fared better than some of her male colleagues who often appeared to lose their pieces of paper altogether and, on one occasion at least, could be seen scrabbling around looking for them whilst muttering, "Nggak ada Pak" (They're not here boss).

The editing and scheduling also beggared belief. The final few seconds of a crucial volleyball match were interrupted by several besuited TVRI types announcing that their channel was going digital. The TVRI top brass then strolled into the studio next door and shambled around aimlessly whilst the show's presenter proceeded to fawn all over them, seemingly forgetting that he was still live on air.

Other classic moments of televisual gold, among many, included 10 minutes of crowd shots without sound in the Velodrome, a five-minute impressionistic still life of an empty Taekwondo mat, the cutting away from Beijing icon Usain Bolt's 200 m semi-final in order to screen beach volleyball and the missing of the crucial concluding seconds of the water polo final in order to show the news (on which there was no sound for the first three minutes).

One feels sorry for Markis Kido and Hendra Setiawan who were triumphant in scoring Indonesia's only gold medal in the badminton doubles. At least someone was making an effort. Surely after beating the Chinese and their Gulag style training regime they deserved better than this?
According to the JP only 30 fans were there to meet the returning shuttlers at the airport. They were probably outnumbered by Kido and Setaiwan’s coaches and entourage. TVRI are largely responsible for this I believe. Anyhoo, I'm off to play tiddly-winks. I'll be back with another bronze medal winning tirade next week.