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.