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?