Monday, February 25, 2008

From Beyond the Grave

After last week's seasonally affected rant against the callous neo-feudal forces of commerce shaping our brave new world I thought I'd leave my supermarket paranoia behind and seek solace among the dead. Really bottoming out now aren't I?

In fact though, a curious contentment descended on me when I visited one of the city's largest cemeteries last Sunday. The boneyard in question covers a pretty large area of land and can be found at the intersection/flyover between Tanah Abang and Jl. Sudirman, just behind BNI 46, the city's tallest skyscraper. I'm sure many of you have passed this garden of the dead before and observed the strange, modernist, triangular, glass and metal monument at its entrance.

As I entered, a burial was underway and seemingly hundreds of behatted Muslims were filing through the stones to the temporarily erected canopy over the departed's grave plot. I strolled through the cemetery, taking a few impressionistic mobile phone photos of headstones projected against a backdrop of the business district’s skyscrapers as I went.

I soon came across a big signboard displaying various rates and surcharges. Renting a grave plot for three years will apparently only set you back Rp.100,000. Amusingly though, also listed amongst the various charges was a considerably more expensive Rp.1,000,000 per two days which is levied at film crews shooting in the graveyard. A fair price I think for desecrating the sanctity of the dead with the ludicrous zombies and overblown pantomime much beloved of local schlock horror B movies. Unfortunately though, during my stroll I didn't come across any scenes reminiscent of Michael Jackson's thriller video.

On the other hand, the graveyard seemed to be a fairly bustling place despite the lack of theatrics. There were goats trotting around everywhere for a start. The odd motorcycle could be seen burning through the stones and some tuneful Dangdhut songs were blasting out in the car park. In addition, locals living close by were fetching and carrying water from the graveyard's pumps and transporting it back to their nearby houses.

At one point, I also became the unwitting recipient of the classic Bule Pied Piper syndrome as about 20 young local children proceeded to follow me around on my meander.

The whole outing was rather agreeable in fact and not at all morbid or in any way a hallowed or spiritual experience. The locals seem to use the place as a park, which is not surprising considering the absence of any other recreation areas in the neighborhood and the city's woeful lack of green space in general. Only in Jakarta, perhaps, is it possible to encounter a busy graveyard.

At some point though (and fairly soon according to estimates that I have read in the paper) the city will run out of graveyard space and then we will have a real problem on our hands. I suppose everyone could convert to Hinduism and then we could send floating pyres down the Ciliwung.

In my country, a group called the Natural Burial Society has cracked the space problem in an environmentally friendly way by interring its members out in the countryside. The burial sites are unmarked by actual graves or headstones and the dead are placed in biodegradable coffins or simple shrouds and thus do not intrude on the landscape. However, a memorial is often engraved on a nearby tree. This strikes me as a rather humane and dignified return to the soil. Why not feed a tree with your remains and perpetuate the great cycle of life? Be green even in death! Worth considering when you learn that each year, 22,500 cemeteries across the United States bury approximately:
30 million board feet (70,000 m³) of hardwood coffins
90,272 tons of steel (in coffins)
14,000 tons of steel (vaults)
2,700 tons of copper and bronze (coffins again)
1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete (vaults)
827,060 US gallons (3,130 m³) of embalming fluid, which most commonly includes formaldehyde and which damages the environment.

Perhaps this could be tried here and we could thus solve the green space problem and the graves crisis at one stroke. Any vacant plot of land currently in the crosshairs of avaricious shopping mall developers could be filled with corpses and grass could be seeded on the top. We'd all get a nice park to enjoy and the builders couldn't move in for fear of being accused of disrespecting the dead and desecrating graves. Quite an elegant solution I think, although no doubt one completely incompatible with both local religious sensibilities and capitalist realities.

Myself? I'd like to be buried face up in a window flower box in Beyonce's apartment. The thought of her holding a watering can over me in her nightie is a constant comfort during my long, dark night of the soul and helps me to come to terms with my own mortality.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Lost In The Supermarket

Oh the rain it raineth every day. It seems a hard winter has set in across the land and the grey pall of an unshiftable low front is upon us. The sun has gone to bed and I must deal with the reality of my phantom seasonal affective disorder. I have just had a couple of brainwaves regarding future rants but as of this week the best I could manage was a trip down to my local Hero supermarket in order to stock up on supplies of biscuits and prophylactics.

Mind you, even a lowly supermarket can rescue a desperate columnist from the jaws of weekly defeat. There's a whole world of cultural and socioeconomic signifiers to reflect on as one embarks on one's weekly shop and suffers all the existential angst of modern man under late capitalism.

Even buying a few packets of crisps is an agony of choice. The despotic control mechanisms of materialism cloak themselves, as always, in the hollow promise of consumer preference. Should it be Chitos or Taro that I nosh on while I watch some Hollywood rubbish at home? Why should I care? Why should I be eating this stuff at all? I'd be better off chewing the bags that it comes in.

Mind you, many of the local snacks look pretty noxious too. Every supermarket here has its section of transparent plastic packets full of such charming items as dried chicken guts and desiccated jellyfish. In all my time here I've only been brave enough to delve very tentatively into these shelves of fossils and biological curiosities, but they do have their fans in the snack world.

Then of course there's the instant noodle section. This usually occupies an entire side of the supermarket aisle. Instant noodles are much loved here, of course, and represent the ultimate victory for the food industry of convenience and advertising over nutritional content. I'm quite partial to the occasional bowl myself although boiling and eating half a dozen discarded cigarette packets would probably have an equally fortifying effect on my constitution.

A friend here once told me a story, no doubt apocryphal, of someone who supposedly ate nothing but Indomie and drank nothing but Coca-Cola for a year and then died of a massive brain tumor. This sounds plausible if you ask me but no doubt I'll be tucking into another bowl of noodles again soon. The interpassive simulations of reality that advertising presents to us as real reality have no doubt colonized my unconscious mind, as they have everyone else's, and I find myself powerless to resist the old Indomie.

So what other delights did I find at Hero to stoke the fires of my postmodern paranoia? Well, on some of the supermarket shelves there are now actually mini TV screens looping product advertisements over and over again. I found the whole thing quite scary. These new technologies seem to be winding the tourniquet of capital's banal and vapid consumerism tighter and tighter around our already half throttled brains. Adverts now poke their heads out at me every minute of the day; their illusion of reality rendered increasingly seamless by our new digital utopia. There should be some kind of help line available. "Has this advert insulted your intelligence? Are you feeling two dimensional today? Then call this number".

Any other revelations on my post Marxist shop? Well, around the soap and shampoo shelves I found the inevitable skin whitening products that are so popular here. One called Flawless White promised whiter looking skin in a mere seven days, a feat that stretches credulity somewhat unless, of course, Flawless White is merely a cheap way of repackaging all of the left over bleach and toilet cleaners produced by local factories. Here though, capital's reductive prize, fear, in this case fear of being considered black, dovetails with some extremely unpleasant racial overtones.

Wheeling my trolley round to the other side of the supermarket I found an interesting organic food section. The posters declared that, "Organic farming can restore, maintain and enhance an ecological harmony." The implication here that buying organic produce is a purely ethical decision completely ignores the fact that Hero's organic tomatoes cost seven times as much as their nonorganic equivalents. Few people here can afford this stuff but, as usual, socioeconomic class differences are downplayed in the marketplace. If you can't afford what is on sale you are not only a social pariah but now also an eco-terrorist too.

So here we are comrades, the end of it all. The supermarket terminus of history. All politics and ideologies have been replaced by shopping. The promise of a better life wrapped in plastic for a few Rupiah's discount.

I hope it stops raining soon.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Leaving On A Jet Plane (Don’t Know When I’ll be Back Again)

Well Friday of last week proved to be another fun day of over-hydration in the capital. Jakarta's floods seem to be moving from a five-year cycle towards a one-year cycle, the combined result of global warming, environmental degradation and years of poor city governance.

I'm sure you all have your own fun stories to relate. Myself, I attempted a trip into the office whilst the rain was still hammering down and, despite only walking for five minutes with an umbrella, got completely soaked from head to foot, and then found that my appointment had been cancelled due to the deluge. All good fun.

I cheered up no end though when I learnt that the President was in a similar flood induced predicament, stranded in his motorcade on the toll road, no doubt composing tracks for that difficult second album (It's Raining in My Heart, Your Love Is like Breached Flood Barrier, Toll Road of Desire, etc etc).

Other Indonesian politicians seemed to fare a little better however, mainly due to being the proud owners of the latest top of the range, high ground clearance SUVs. The Jakarta Post revealed all last Saturday:
"The rest of the cabinet's ministers arrived on time at the palace for the meeting. Among them were Transportation Minister Jusman Syafii Djamal in a Land Rover, Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Adm.(ret) Widodo AS in a Lexus Cygnus, Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare Aburizal Bakrie in a Toyota Alphard, State Minister for the Environment Rachmat Witoelar in a BMW X5 and Forestry Minister MS Ka'ban in a Toyota Prado."

I stopped reading at that point as the story seemed to be lurching perilously close to something you'd find in Top Gear magazine. I wonder if these legislative auto enthusiasts get any commission for road testing these vehicles in Jakarta's 660 km square paddling pool. Certainly other motorists were less fortunate and familiar images of half submerged, abandoned cars once again filled the local media. Recently I've been considering getting a second-hand motor car but the thought of being conned into buying one of these terminally flood damaged clunkers fills me with dread.

Jakarta's airport seemed to be the biggest victim of last week's rain however. My housemate’s own personal attempts to return from a Singapore visa run should provide ample illustration. His plane was first diverted to Palembang where he was trapped inside with the other passengers on the runway with the air-conditioning off for ages whilst the backlog of diverted flights was dealt with.

Upon eventually arriving at Soekarno-Hatta he found that heading into town was impossible and checked into an airport hotel on one of their six hour room stay deals. He crashed out, exhausted, only to be woken up at 3 a.m. by an insistent knocking on the door. "Six hours finished Mr, time to check out." my bleary eyed friend's attempt to prolong his stay with his credit card proved unsuccessful and he was forced to take a motorcycle taxi ride to the nearest ATM in order to secure further funds for more time in the land of nod. The next day it eventually took the poor lamb 3 1/2 hours to get home via the back streets of Tanggerang.

These kinds of shenanigans don't really bode well for 2008: Visit Indonesia Year. I mean you're pretty much stuck on the starting blocks if you can't even get out of the airport. If I was some fastidious potential business investor or wealthy tourist arriving at Soekarno-Hatta after a long, luxury business class flight quaffing champagne on Cathay Pacific whilst being manicured and peeled grapes by curvaceous stewardesses, I think I'd find the whole Jakarta airport scenario a bit of a rude awakening.

Although Jakarta's airport seems to be getting cut off from the rest of the world with increasing regularity, in truth this flooding problem has been on the cards for years. In the dry season, the drive to the airport is actually a very pleasant canter through lush verdant vegetation and green paddy fields but on both sides the toll road is always surrounded by ominous swathes of water, ready to submerge it at a moment's notice. The whole area is basically a swamp. The city administration seems to have done nothing about it for years though.

That famous, and alas now deceased, galactic hitchhiker Douglas Adams once said that, "Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so," an epithet tailor-made for Jakarta's governors if you ask me.

Matters would certainly be helped if the city administration would finally get round to finishing the JORR (Jakarta Outer Ring Road) which would at least provide another exit route out of the airport. Work on the ring road was halted during the 1998 financial crisis and doesn't seem to have been started again since.

I learned in the paper this week that plans are afoot to elevate the airport tollway. As I understand it though, the toll road, as it is now, is designed around an underlying 'chicken's claw' system which distributes the road's weight evenly over a larger area of the bog underneath, stopping it from sinking. Would it really be possible to build an elevated tollway on such an unstable base given that the current road is basically floating as it is? Perhaps any civil engineers out there could enlighten me on this point as I'm getting way out of my depth here.

Until then it's adieu from me for another week and if you find yourself wading through floodwaters over the next month, remember to wash your legs thoroughly afterwards.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

A Death in the Family

So it seems I got it very wrong last weekend when I suggested that Mr Suharto would soon be back in good health and playing Grand Theft Auto on his Playstation back on Jalan Cendana. Sorry about that but not being a Javanese mystic I don't possess the requisite psychic and telekinetic powers to have foreseen the old man's imminent demise last Sunday. I'm clearly not in touch with the great spirits of the mountains. In truth I'm more of a vodka man.

Inevitably, last Sunday we were treated to plenty of archive television footage of Mr S. larking around in rice fields, fishing and generally bestowing fatherly blessings upon those genuflecting before him. Now, a respectful attitude towards the dead is to be applauded in civilized society of course. However, I think that if Indonesia took a long, hard look at itself in the mirror in the shadow of this man's death then it would do the country the power of good.

When Suharto stepped down in 1998 and the student demonstrators, perhaps stunned at the enormity of what had happened, accepted Mr. Habibie as his replacement, the momentum for reform pretty much stalled in its tracks. Suharto's Golkar party was not dissolved and about 90% of the New Order regime remained in power. Ultimately, the '98 revolution had a pretty hollow ring to it; it was a specious, typically Indonesian political victory of appearance over substance. Since then it's thus been a painfully slow slog towards a fairer society and now, a decade later, the country still seems to reflect back the old man’s inscrutable smile from the mirror.

But you've all been reading this kind of stuff to overkill during the last week I'm sure. Cries of "He was a tyrant," or, "He was a great leader," repeating endlessly like a broken record. The country seems somewhat conflicted about the death and doesn't quite know how to react, possibly because they only ever had one president die before.

Speaking of which, Sukarno's widow (well one of them) has piped up this week and declared that the old man was Indonesia's Pol Pot. In fact, in terms of his local, Asian peer group, it was probably only a lack of ideological fervor in the man's character that stopped Indonesia's journey just short of the insanities of the killing fields or of Mao's completely bonkers Cultural Revolution. Why do so many of these postcolonial dreams of freedom end up so shabbily? Why has George Orwell's famous cautionary tale, the allegorical Animal Farm, proved so prescient to so many nations in recent history? The good intentions always seem to sour. The animals all struggle together to wrest control of the farm from the humans then the whole dream flies out the window as the pigs take command and equality becomes a relative term.

But enough of the heavy stuff. At street level it's been quite interesting this week trying to gauge reactions to the great man's passing. We had a media blitz coverage of the funeral on Monday with President SBY ironically skipping an anticorruption conference in order to attend. The BBC, usually at pains to avoid the shameless rabble rousing and emoting of certain other TV news networks, surprisingly referred to Suharto's, “Obscenely wealthy children, " in their coverage. Well done the Beeb.

Many students at my school seemed to be barely aware of the man and his achievements/crimes. No real surprise there. Other Indonesians of my acquaintance seemed to be roughly evenly divided in either their respect or contempt for Mr S. President SBY has called for a week of national mourning and for flags to be flown at half-mast, which has proved to be a good visual yardstick during the last few days.

As I write this I can see a flag flying at a forlornly low height across the road from me although I have seen others at full mast too. Whether this represents some kind of political statement or is indicative of a failure to find the step ladder, I'm not quite sure. A friend of mine told me that seemingly every large house in the Pondok Indah area of town has a respectfully lowered flag flying outside. Most of these houses are worth well in excess of $1 million. I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

In contrast, having a drink at one of Jalan Jaksa's scuzziest bars last week, I noticed that the flag on the roof was billowing proudly at the top of its pole. Not only that but the place seemed to be more crowded with foreign tourists than it's been in ages. The music was pumping and the backpackers danced the night away with the local men dressed as ladies and ladies dressed as men dressed as ladies. Mourning certainly didn't seem to be the order of the hour. On the contrary, I've rarely seen the joint so jumping.

Perhaps the tourist board's grammatically controversial new slogan, "100 Years of the Nation's Awakening," should be replaced with, "One Week of the Nation's Awakening: He's Gone, It's Finally Over, Let's Party." Judging by the evidence on show last week, it could boost tourist revenues no end.