Monday, July 28, 2008


A slight depression has been afflicting me for the past few weeks. I initially wondered what was going on, I mean, my finances weren’t in any more parlous a condition than they usually are and my lady friend and I weren’t getting along any more dreadfully than we do in general.

After a while I realized that I needed a proper week long holiday and not just a weekend in Bali like I had recently had (a mere act of self abuse next to the loving caress of a proper getaway in the country).

And so it’s another non-Jakartan column just to further enrage all of you busway surfing smog breathers. The holiday season it most definitely is and this week I’ve been enjoying the tranquility of Lake Maninjau which is situated near Padang in West Sumatra.

After a charming Air Asia flight to Padang, the most memorable feature of which was a half hour period of underwear soiling turbulence, I checked into a flop house for the evening.

Described in everyone’s favorite cheapskate guide book The Lonely Planet as being, “As sweet as a tall glass of Fanta,” the guesthouse in question alas didn’t quite live up to this billing. Hopefully by the next edition they’ll have added the phrase, “…that has been left out in the sun for several days,” to this description.

The next day I had a quick stroll through town which turned out not to be the, “Krakow of Indonesia,” as a friend of mine had acerbically described it. On the other hand it didn’t seem to be a tremendously exciting place either. However, as with many other places in Indonesia, the hot, shabby and dusty city is more than compensated for by the stunning surrounding countryside.

I hopped on a bus which took me on a three hour journey up through the hills to Bukittinggi. After a hearty lunch of Nasi Padang (surprise surprise) I had a quick spin around the town before bagging another two hour bus ride to Lake Maninjau.

The descent to the lakeside is quite awesome. Fantastic views over the water are afforded as the bus winds downwards through the lake’s surrounding mountains via 44 extremely sharp hairpin bends.

Finally, having managed to avoid plunging off the edge of the road to certain death, we arrived at the small lakeside town of Maninjau itself. The lake is smaller than North Sumatra’s famous Toba, South East Asia’s largest. Nevertheless, at 17km long and 8km wide, Maninjau is an awe inspiring sight.

There are no motor boats on the lake at all, only hand paddled kayaks and the local inhabitants farm fish as well as the lush surrounding hillsides.

There are a few places to stay in Maninjau town although it’s better to head four or five kilometers north, following the lake’s perimeter road until the Bayur area. Here, several beachside cottage complexes provide backpackers with basic facilities and fabulous lakeside views for a whopping Rp.40,000-50,000 per night.

I checked in and dived straight into the lake for a refreshing dip. The water is warmer than that of Lake Toba and is mirror calm.

The next day, after more spicy Padang food (sufferers of irritable bowel syndrome beware on those Sumatran jaunts) I rented a bicycle and set out to circumnavigate the lake, a journey of some 40km.

The ride took me though forest and small villages and there were superb views of the lake to be had at every turn. The mountains towered vertiginously above and the water shone like pure alabaster. On every street, kids shouted hellos; and what a lot of kids there were! Mr. Bambang, the proprietor of the fine hostel that I was staying at had told me the previous night that his offspring numbered a healthy five.

Such fecundity is typical of Indonesia’s boondocks (and cities for that matter) and I wondered how these swelling ranks of Sumatrans would impact on the Maninjau eco-system in the future.

I stopped for a bite to eat and had a pleasant conversation in Bahasa with an elderly lady who then proceeded to serve me the most appalling Soto Ayam I’ve ever eaten. Afterwards, I continued peddling around the lake in the burning sun and was thankfully only a kilometer from my hostel before my ancient bicycle’s dodgy gearing system finally chewed itself to bits.

It had been a splendid day though. Get yourself up to Padang pop pickers…

Sunday, July 20, 2008


Last weekend I slid along to a swanky new shopping plaza called Pacific Place which is located in the Semanggi area. The plaza itself is an opulent yet half empty citadel of designer brands and fancy restaurants, much like the new Grande Plaza opposite Plaza Indonesia that I ended up scribbling about for MM last month.

My real reason for re-entering the bourgeois zone though was to visit a place called Kidzania. Located on the top floor of Pacific Place, Kidzania is a child sized replica of a real city. Parents pay Rp.150,000, shove their snack engorged offspring through the entrance and then trot off shopping, unencumbered by whining for three hours or so.

Meanwhile, their kids get to enjoy the whole Kidzania Weltanshauung for a whole afternoon. At Kidzania, children apparently, "Learn the value of money and work." Basically, the little nippers earn Kidzania dollars by working for various companies (familiar Indonesian corporate logos are splashed everywhere). The KIidzanians can then remove their ersatz junior cash from special mini BCA ATMs and spend it at the department store or at the Kidzania bakers, among other demands for the little ones’ hard earned wages.

Nearing the Kidzania lobby, I disembarked from the escalator and marveled at the Air Asia nose cone sticking out over the cashiers. Some serious money has been sunk into this place. I stepped through the Kidzania entrance and was immediately almost run over by a mini fire truck full of kids in firefighter uniforms with moustaches penciled in on their top lips (and that was just the girls). Clearly, the Kidzania simulacra of the adult world has been meticulously planned. I was starting to feel like Gulliver in Lilliput.

I strolled around the diminutive city square that constitutes Kidzania and was impressed by the attention to detail. There's a radio station in which kids can broadcast interviews out over the city, a theatre running acting classes, a Media Indonesia newspaper production office and a Pond's Sunsilk salon. There's a car track on which kids can drive mini Honda Jazzes, unencumbered by traffic jams, a mini PLN electricity office (no blackouts at Kidzania) and a BCA bank. There's a dentist at which kids poke around in a mannequin's mouth, a Holcim construction site for budding builders, an Air Asia flight simulator and even a mini courthouse, police station and jail complete with swarthy occupant that the kids have to bring to justice every hour.

The whole community has been rendered in miniature, deodorized, spruced up with the monolithic neo-feudal corporate logos of the neo-liberal adult world outside and fed to Kidzania's inhabitants under the guise of play.

Regular readers may have already correctly postulated that Kidzania raised a few bolshie MM heckles. There can be no denying though that the children were enjoying themselves. In my day the best we could manage was to push each other down a hill in a park in a disused shopping trolley while skidding on dog dirt.

After walking around this micro-economic miracle for a while I came across a plinth upon which the Kidzania mission statement, heavily borrowed from the US Constitution, was engraved. "Get ready for a better world," it starts portentously, "We the kids of the world's cities, countries and continents proclaim out independence from adults. We hereby hold the following truths to be obvious, that all kids are created equal and that we are endowed with certain irrevocable rights to be, know, care and play in the pursuit of our happiness of the world."

All very idealistic for sure and in Kidzania this fantasy of a meritocratic liberal free-market Utopia actually holds true, something that certainly can't be said of the real world outside. There are no kids begging at traffic lights on Kidzania's streets. All sense of the accumulating inequalities that come from the pursuit of wealth forgetting all but self have been airbrushed out of Kidzania and only the clean lines of simulated corporate capital and junior ATMs remain.

I'm sure that all of this social indoctrination is fun for the kids but they'd be having fun anyway. It's fun to play at being an adult when you're eight, and within Kidzania's inverted Peter Pan, hologram fantasy world of mini banks and boulevards the little ones were having a wail of a time trying to pursue the implicit Kidzania ideology, borrowed from the world outside: grow up, work, earn, spend, consume, rinse and repeat.

There will be plenty of time for the consumer neurosis hangover to develop later in their teenage years of course. The sense of inadequacy that comes from having an inferior mobile phone or MP3 player, the pressure to grow up and be sexy is currently intensifying within schools throughout the developed world and inculcating a sense of psychic dislocation and apathy in our teenagers.

Kidzania though, is perhaps just as much a flight of the imagination for the parents as it is for the kids. It's the classic parental fantasy that their offspring will all work hard, become lawyers and doctors and make their piles whilst making mum and dad very proud. This noble desire, however, is fighting against our narcotizing new world of Play Stations, web-networking and corporate entertainment media. Increasingly, kids seem to dream of ascending, effort free, into the ranks of celebritydom.

Any sense of social solidarity or political resistance to society's control program (as replicated at Kidzania) is nullified as we suck on the nipple of our new digital globe. Atomized and isolated within the Oed-i-Pod solitude of the entertainment consumer.

Brave New World? Give me a park and a shopping trolley any day.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Fossil Fuel Folly

Recently, I resolved rather masochistically to take some driving lessons. Now I know that I've been a great advocate for the humble but green bicycle in previous MMs but rest assured that I will continue to pedal to work in the future as there's nothing better than arriving at the office wringing wet with perspiration. Now that my motorcycle days are behind me though I thought I would at least try to belatedly acquire a skill that most normal Westerners learn before they are 20 (I'm 21 now you understand). On the other hand, learning to drive just as global oil prices head for the carbon dioxide filled stratosphere is just the kind of perverse, if not downright imbecilic idea that has made be a household name the length and breadth of Mampang.

This was to be a test of mettle, an assault course on my psyche and mental resilience. If I can drive a car in Jakarta, I theorized, then I can drive one anywhere. After scouring the Internet I eventually procured the address of a local driving school in East Jakarta, the cheesy side of town. I bagged a Bluebird taxi to the hallowed Institute of learning in question and soon found myself in the 2 meter by 3 meter room that constituted the driving school's office. After assuring the slightly taken aback lady in charge that I would be able to follow their instructor’s Indonesian commands I handed over a reasonably small amount of hard earned Rupiah and quickly found myself behind the wheel of a modified and rather dilapidated Kijang.

"Okay Sir, just pull out into the traffic," my guru intoned chirpily. "Err... right," I nervously answered, staring at the bumper to bumper chaos seething outside the car park. Then I crawled slowly onto the main road at the kind of pace that would have seen me burned off by Stephen Hawking in his motorized wheelchair. As our trusty Kijang was swallowed by the traffic and we pottered along in second gear, I fought down a wave of rising panic and nausea. "I'm going to crash! I'm going to hit something!" I thought. I had a strong premonition that I would presently hit the back of a Metro Mini bus and that the driver would then jump out and remonstrate with me with his fists.

The motorbikes swarmed around me as if operated by riders dosed up on the kind of pills that have a warning about not operating heavy machinery printed on the packet. My biking days are over though. Now I was on the other side of the windscreen. In fact I had entered the realm in which my worst enemy would be motorbikes. When I had had a bike myself, in contrast, my worst enemy hang on... it was other motorbikes now that I come to think of it.

Yes the bikes swarm around the unsuspecting car driver like drowsy wasps at a barbecue. The ostensibly simple task of turning left proved to be the hardest trick to master as the bikers, apparently oblivious to my indicator signals, continued to stream past me on my curbside like machine-gun bullets.

Then we hit the back streets. These are the real test of one's driving chops. Most of the city's backstreets aren't actually wide enough for two lanes of traffic and thus all kinds of maneuverings, swervings and stampings on brakes are continually required. Add in the open sewers at the side of the road waiting to snare unsuspecting drivers, the pedestrians impeding one's car due to the lack of pavements and the often lunar type road surface and you have yourself one extreme sport type experience. Nintendo should release a game called Jakarta Driver.

Infinite reserves of Zen like patience are required if you are to negotiate the city streets in an automobile without running over an old lady balancing a basket of bottles on her head or a group of soccer loving school kids. Occasionally, I felt my serenity wearing thin and I suspect that there must also be other drivers in Jakarta whose innermost cathartic desire is to steam through a Soto Ayam (chicken soup) roadside Warung with their arses on fire at 90 km an hour , screaming like Zulu warriors as diners scatter or are crushed mercilessly beneath Bridgestone tyres.

And there we must end psychotherapy for this week. As for the driving, well I'm not doing too badly now, however with oil prices soaring the world over this little scheme of mine may well have been doomed from the off. Apparently beer is now cheaper than petrol in many Western countries and consequently the iconic slogan, "Don't drink and drive," should perhaps be changed to the ironic, "Drink... don't drive." Nevertheless, I hope to take a spin out in the country soon, once I've mastered the art of trundling around the city's atrophying arteries. Its 2008 though, whatever happened to the future? They really should have invented spaceships by now.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Shameless Plug

Right then. I've posted a link to some of my ghastly home made music that I knocked up on my computer using various pieces of illegal software purchased in Jakarta. Check the links column on the right if you're remotely interested. Any scathing reviews would be most welcome.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Dream within a Dream

Indonesian television is not generally something that particularly interests me however there is one show that has stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy of late. I refer, of course, to Republik Mimpi (Dream Republic) which has had the establishment's well groomed moustaches bristling with indignation on more than a few occasions over the last few years.

My low tolerance threshold for the local TV shows has meant that I can only ever recall seeing the show once as broadcast live. However, the very super You Tube hosts a number of clips from the show which I have been free to download now that the site has once again been unblocked after the Fitna debacle.

Republik Mimpi's satirical content would have been unthinkable during the New Order's brutal and censorious regime and its a mark of how Indonesia has changed during the last decade that the show has managed to establish itself and continues to puncture the puffed up and pusillanimous on a weekly basis. Indonesia may still be corrupt and riddled with cant and sleaze but at least you can say as much publicly these days. In fact, in terms of freedom of speech and of the press, Indonesia has leapfrogged over many of its near neighbors. It is now legally possible to criticize the country's elites on TV and in print (although, in practice, journalists can still get their heads kicked in for their pains).

Republik Mimpi used to be broadcast on Metro TV however it moved to TV One in February as Metro apparently found it too hot to handle. Politicians have lambasted the show for flouting traditional Indonesian respect for authority. The Constitutional Court has, however, dismissed such cynically self-serving arguments and has removed articles that make it a crime to insult senior figures from the statute books. Bravo and hurrah I say. Blind respect for authority will get (has got) the country precisely nowhere.

Politicians are not there to be respected; they are to be questioned, hard and should be able to justify their dealings. Perhaps a healthy mistrust of politicians is the essence of democracy. We should never forget that politicians work for us rather than vice versa. There's no need to feel bad for them, they get their 30 pieces of silver for their troubles.

The increase in press freedom and the freedom to criticize the government is probably the best thing that has emerged in this country's politics during this reform decade. This has to be balanced against a decrease in religious freedom though and I suspect it can't be long before the powers that be start to censure Republik Mimpi on religious grounds, just as back in the 12th century, Chaucer's satirical portraits were attacked for being unchristian and disrespectful.

Satire is a powerful tool and runs through literature from ancient Greece through Chaucer and Mark Twain right up to current favorites such as The Simpsons or the online spoof newspaper The Onion. Wikipedia defines satire as a device by which, "Human vices, follies and abuses are held up to censure by means of ridicule, derision, burlesque, irony or other methods, ideally with the intent of bringing improvement." Literary critic Northrop Frye said that, "In satire, irony is militant."

Dream Republic has played its own small part in bringing improvements to the country by showing Indonesians that the prevailing cultural imperative of deference to authority is not necessarily always in the long-term good. It has encouraged people to express their too often repressed disapproval of those who hold power.

Anyway, I checked out the show on You Tube and a few chuckles managed to make their way through the barrier of my woefully mediocre Bahasa. In the show SBY, Yusuf Kalla, Gus Dur, Megawati, et al are all impersonated by actors and grilled by the studio audience over the issues of the day. The RM crew dispenses one-liners galore in between musical interludes and chantings of the catchphrase BBM (Baru Bisa Mimpi).

At one point, the actor playing Yusuf Kalla revealed that he had attended a celebrity movie event with the real Yusuf Kalla which had caused much confusion and amusement. I also watched as the show's cast joined knee-jerk protests outside the Malaysian Embassy, helping to diffuse the nationalist tension down there through humor and their threats to boycott the music of popular Malaysian songstress Siti Nurhaliza. Long may there be dreamers in this country.