Sunday, June 29, 2008

Holidays in the Sun

Picking up where I left off last week (if you remember I had just taken a leak in one of Soekarno-Hatta airport's controversial conveniences) I'll continue this time with a short précis of my trip to a friend's wedding in Bali.

In fact, I've written about holidaying in Bali before in Metro Mad. If memory serves, on that occasion I was having my blood pressure raised by the overcrowded rat runs of the Legian area and lambasting the Neanderthal antics of the Australian surfers in the room next door.

Luckily, this time around proved to be a more soothing vacation, although the surfers were indeed out in force along with the usual ground swell of Kuta cowboys. These are the local beach lotharios who are often to be seen wandering along the sand in cowboy hats with packets of Marlboro stuffed down the waistbands of their shorts, accompanied by strapping Western women several inches taller than themselves.

After checking into my one star accommodation, I quickly rented a scooter with failing brakes and went careering down the road to the beach. The 66 area towards the north of Legian is a good spot to park one's lily white European skin, soak up some sun, splash around in the sea and peak at bikinis from behind a strategically held copy of The Jakarta Post. All the food and beer you could ever want are about a three-meter walk away. You can't go wrong.

In the evening I ran into an old friend around the Bali bomb ground zero area and we went for a drink or 15. The post bomb slump seems to be well and truly over and the foreigners are back with a vengeance. This time it's war!

As it's the school holidays in Indonesia there were also a lot of domestic tourists to be seen pacing the bustling streets of Legian, although predictably few of them were matching the Australians drink for drink.

A story has emerged in the Indonesian press this week which claims that the fiscal tax that we all begrudgingly pay when we leave the country could be scrapped soon. I won't be holding my breath as this story has surfaced several times before in recent years.

I have also heard though that the Bali tourist industry have lobbied the powers that be in an attempt to retain the tax. This would ensure that domestic tourists continue to come to Bali in numbers as opposed to gaily jetting off to Phuket or wherever. Hmmm. As I write this the latest word is that exemption from the fiscal tax will involve having to register yourself at the tax office and getting a tax number. Double hmmm.

Anyway, the weekend arrived and it was time to leave the Kuta hordes behind and head somewhere more peaceful. My friend's wedding was being held at a resort on the West Coast of Bali. After a two hour road trip that gradually unwound out of the jams of the south (only to find ourselves predictably crawling along behind several of those ubiquitous yellow trucks that chug along at 10 km per hour) we arrived in the Jembrana area, which is roughly equidistant between Legian and the port of Banyuwangi on Bali's westernmost tip.

This western part of the Bali is the least touristy area of the island and also its most sparsely populated, which made for a pleasant change after the urbanized sprawl of the south. After checking into our excellent little hotel of cottages (called the Puri Dajuma) I took a bicycle and went huffing and puffing around the local area. The countryside was gorgeous and after a few kilometers I found a track down to the beach.

A 10 km stretch of wide black sand stretched out in both directions and there was not a soul to be seen (not strictly true, do dogs have souls?) Several streams trickled into the sea along the beach's length and the breeze rocked the palm trees and jungle behind the sand as I strolled along for a couple of clicks. This was far more like the areas of solitude and natural beauty that I've visited in Sumatra or Lombok, than the holidaymaking hullabaloo usually associated with Bali.

This was undeniably the true meaning of getting away from it all. I had a delicious sense of, not so much loneliness, as that word is usually taken to have negative connotations. Perhaps aloneness would be a more neutral word. It was an innate peace devoid of 6000 W speaker systems, car horns and advertising jingles; a meditative splendor that one is obviously never afforded back home in Jakarta.

I watched the sun set dramatically across the sea, behind the mountains of the Alas Purwo National Park in East Java as birds arced and wheeled through the sky. Paradise is just a pee in a dodgy toilet followed by an Air Asia flight away.

After my Discovery Channel epiphany, all that remained for me to do was to enjoy my comrade’s wedding. This involved healthy amounts of pork, seafood, wine, kilts, Gamelan music and Legong dancing. Hopefully the hangover will clear in a few more days.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Excuse Me While I Kiss the Sky

Fierce debate has been raging in the JP letters page of late regarding the general state of Soekarno Hatta airport and specifically the upkeep of its many toilets. I therefore decided, in the interests of public hygiene, to pay a visit to the airport myself in order to check on the condition of its facilities. The fact that I was flying to Bali in order to attend a wedding only added to the urgency of my mission. One’s general toilet freshness and underpant hygiene should always be of the highest possible caliber when attending a friend’s nuptials.

As I barreled up the airport toll road in my rather fetid taxi, the sun broke over the surrounding lagoon-like marshland, reflecting off the water and illuminating the trees; a glimpse perhaps of a tranquil, submerged future of coastal floods and drowned cities. Indeed, Soekarno Hatta airport is already sometimes completely cut off from its mother city by heavy rain sloshing across the toll road, a fact which only served to add prophetic gravitas to the still, primordial pools of Cengkareng.

Yes, it’s carbon payback time it would seem. Mother Nature is taking revenge on the air travel that has visited domestic violence upon her and bloodied her nose. One recent UK government report paints a scenario of a world 50 years hence in which all air travel has ended and the water has inundated all low lying coastal areas.

In the meantime though, I had to get to this wedding and I therefore eased my conscience by resolving to hold in my farts for a period of one year in order to offset my carbon emissions (methane being a greenhouse gas 6 times stronger than carbon dioxide you understand).

Terminal one eventually hoved into view like some ancient temple in the middle of the huge, surrounding lake. I’ve always quite liked Soekarno Hatta and its laid back, minimalistic ambience. Other global airports are feted for their hyperactive, hypermodern micro-economies of hi-tech monorails links, Wifi connections and fastidious, besuited businessmen of every ethnicity. Soekarno Hatta is generally a relaxing and supine place in comparison and this seems to instill a sense of calm passivity in departing passengers, which is probably just as well given Indonesian domestic aviation’s record in recent years.

Surreal British novelist Will Self has pointed out that flying is just about the most extreme thing that your average person undertakes during his or her life. And when you think about it, sitting eating a mini portion of Boeuf Bourginon whilst traveling at 600km/h suspended several kilometers above the Earth’s surface is indeed a pretty untenable state for a human being to be in.

Self believes that airports should reflect the amazing technological feat that can catapult you across the world in a huge jet liner. Check in desks should be staffed by employees in Valkari helmets and flowing silver capes who great you with a loud booming, “Today Sir, we ride on Icarus’s wings and soar to the very heavens! Er..window or aisle seat?” The runways should be lined with Greek statues and Wagnerian heavy metal music should be played over the aircraft’s PA system during take off.

Possibly though the Rp.30,000 airport tax levied on departing passengers at Soekarno Hatta won’t stretch to realizing Self’s extravagant vision and as it stood I had to make do with the airport’s calm, spacious atmosphere.

In the departure area I browsed the magazines and books in the shop and bought myself a relaxing can of beer, the better for to calm my pre flight nerves you understand. I sat and sipped at my can, biding my time (even the Jakarta Post had sold out).

A sense of ennui started to descend upon me and induce a resigned sense of calm. Still, at least I wasn’t being fleeced of all my Rupiah as returning domestic servants often are.
I would once again accept my fate and whatever the Indonesian skyways would deal me this fine day. Should my Air Asia flight go spinning into the Java Sea then I would sink to my watery grave with an expression of total Zen calm on my face.

The beer worked its merry way down through my internal plumbing and roused me from my meditation. It was finally time to cross the Rubicon of “Beware Slippery Floor” signs and head for the rest rooms. Balinese masks hung on the wall next to the entrances, demarcating the male/female parting of the ways in a suitably ethnic style.

The particular toilet that I had chosen to drain my spuds in didn’t prove to be too bad at all, despite the inevitable dissolved porcelain and heavily watered down liquid soap. A pleasant picture of a waterfall helped me with the task in hand and the whole experience wasn’t the vile undertaking recounted by various JP correspondents.

Load lightened, I strolled up to the departure lounge and passengers with express boarding passes were quickly called. I’ve never really understood the express boarding concept. Surely the trick is to be the last one to board the aircraft rather than the first, thus minimizing the time that one spends cramped up with one’s knees around one’s ears breathing in other less carbon conscious passengers’ greenhouse gases.

Anyway, time to stop writing and enjoy an Air Asia snack. The Rp.25,000 Special Fried Rice looks suitably ghastly.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Future Shock

These shopping plazas just keep getting bigger and bigger you know. Last week I paid a visit to the new Plaza Grande which stretches all the way from the currently under reconstruction Hotel Indonesia almost until Tanah Abang.

I felt some initial disorientation upon leaving my taxi as the building of this behemoth of a Plaza has entailed a complete transformation of the surrounding area's topography. "Jagung Tinggi!! Where the hell am I?" I thought cryptically as the Plaza loomed over me ominously.

I located one of the entrances and headed for the automatic sliding doors. As I entered, too extravagantly coiffured local ladies exited and got into a top of the range BMW. Clearly this Plaza was going to be the utmost in discerning luxury; reassuringly expensive and free of vendors selling three pairs of socks for Rp.10,000.

Inside I was soon lost within the maze of boutiques, escalators, mezzanines and 'air bridges'. The place was so huge and opulent that it seemed like some vast intergalactic space station populated by hyper rich humanoids. A retail simulation of reality blasted out of orbit and freed from the surly terrestrial bonds of affordability, sweat and dirt.

I spiralled upwards through the labyrinth of escalators, heading ever deeper into the heart of the Plaza. The upper floors seemed to push further and further into the realms of a weightless virtual reality, a future interior world in which the pleasure principle is the only social imperative and all mankind has left to do is shop and have fun.

The restaurant food court floor is an absolute fantasy land. It is draped entirely in the mellow browns and rustic hues of ethnic fabrics. I came across a mini funfair on my epic voyage as well as an indoor beach (yes really). Elsewhere, the Grande's upper floors are a postmodern, post historical mix-and-match of Elizabethan lamp stands, Roman Fountains and Greek friezes. It all seemed like some hi-tech, hedonic hologram world in which debit cards and doughnuts reign supreme.

I read recently that the city apparently plans to develop Jl. Casablanca as Jakarta's answer to Orchard Road in Singapore. A huge mall complex that will no doubt leave even the Grande in the dust, just as the Grande has left that previous plaza size record holder, Senayan City, behind.

And so Jakarta's Plaza bubble continues to grow apace, driven by a thirst for instant profits, a dearth of imagination and, these days, a reckless disregard for the impending inflation hikes and consumer crunch. Yes, the shopping mall continues to spread its deodorized tentacles throughout every vacant space in the city; these days usually with some attached luxury apartments spliced onto the side. Jakartans highest aspiration is apparently to be able to walk straight out of one's front door and into a Plaza without having to first expose oneself to the city's fetid air.

It may be that at some time in the future, all of the city's plazas will join up and be linked by various 'air walks' and travelators into one huge indoor society of petty bourgeois shoppers. The huge meta-plaza will link up with apartments, hospitals and schools to create a total life plan for the middle and upper classes whilst the underclass squats in rags over bonfires outside the Plaza's portals, roasting dead rats on sticks, left permanently out in the cold (warm?) A new generation of kids will be born inside the meta-mall and stay there for the duration of their lives.

I too began to get an uneasy sense, as I wandered around the enormous Grande, that I'd never find the exit. My whole dystopian omni-mall fantasy/nightmare was starting to remind me of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. In Wells' seminal science-fiction novella, a man invents a time machine and travels into the earth's future. When he gets there he finds that mankind has diverged into two distinct species.

The overclass, called the Eloi, have had all of their material needs met by an advanced technology which has subjugated nature to its own designs. The Eloi live in a hollow utopia however as this amazing technology, through the meeting of all of their material needs and demands, has led to their devolution. The Eloi no longer have to strive and struggle for anything and they have thus become incurious and physically weak.

The underclass in this future are called the Morlocks. The Morlocks are cannibal and bestial, resembling human spiders. They live underground and maintain the machinery that keeps the Eloi docile and well fed. Both species are of sub-human intelligence.

I think that old HG's book can be viewed as a political allegory as much as anything and perhaps the seeds of this extreme vision are being sewn in Jakarta and in other large cities around the world. As I wandered around the Grande, gradually feeling myself pacified and mollified by the shiny lights, piped music and glittering consumer durables, I began to feel my inner Eloi struggling to emerge.

Dave... my mind is going Dave... no hang on, that was something else

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Walk the Line

The oil price spike is, of course, hurting not only this country but the entire world at the moment. This week we learned that the CEO of PT.Indonesia, Mr.SBY has, in his desperation, invested about $1 million of government money in the bogus claims made by some bloke called Joko who he ran into at his local KFC once.

The mysterious stranger's assertion that he could turn water into fuel, a process dubbed Blue Energy by the credulous Mr.Y, has oddly enough proved to be the utterly unscientific load of hokum that I think most of us could have guessed that it was from the word go. However, if Mr SBY is reading this, my mate Dave has perfected a cold fusion process in his Mandi and is quite keen to secure a bit of funding in order to retile it.

The energy crisis, global warming, spiraling food costs; the human race is waltzing ever closer to the precipice it would seem. Now more than ever it is time to green our lives and societies and reduce our carbon footprints. Jakarta's streets are jammed ever tighter with cars and the busway has turned out to be a pretty clunky and inadequate attempt at a solution. Furthermore, all that remains of the putative monorail are the slowly ossifying concrete stumps that pointlessly dot the city's main thoroughfares like so many monolithic monuments to incompetence.

It’s in this context that I’d like to say a few words about Jakarta's oft neglected pedestrians and their 100% bio-organic use of leg power. The humble pavement could be the wave of the city's future (I refuse to use the word sidewalk in this week's MM despite the Jakarta Post's institutionalized use of American English).

When I return home to see my family in London I think nothing of enjoying a 20 minute stroll to the shops or to the tube station. This is largely due to the fact that it's possible to do so without tripping over, being forced into the road to play chicken with endless motorcycles or otherwise being asphyxiated, shouted at, tapped up by primary school age beggars or scolded by flying fried rice.

Similarly, in Java's lush countryside, school kids think nothing of cycling or walking a few kilometers through beautifully verdant palm trees and paddy fields to their schools. In Jakarta's urban jungle though, attempting this every day would be seriously hazardous to one's health.

Walking on Jakarta's pavements is often like walking down a more organized city's pavements having had five bottles of Anker. This is a situation that becomes all the more hazardous if you've actually had five bottles of Anker. Keeping one eye ahead and one eye on the jagged street below requires a bit of ocular gymnastics but it's worth the effort in the end.

All of this has led to a reluctance by many to indulge in the odd bit of Jakarta pavement pounding. Such reluctance only adds to the population's general unfitness and also serves to further socially alienate rich car owners from the city's vibrant but impoverished street life. A bit of serious pedestrianisation of certain areas of town would be a positive step forward and perhaps even act as a balm on the deep wound of the city's huge class chasm.

Overpopulation is part of the problem of course. The streets here are simply teeming with people trying to earn an honest or not so honest living. So far, the city administration's only solutions to urban migration from the poor countryside have been to turn people away from bus stations as they arrive and to crack the skulls of low income city residents who hold non-Jakarta ID cards.

The city's pavements do, however, also contain many great pleasures within the boundaries of their dusty (or more often than not completely nonexistent) kerb stones. Great food is never more than a stone's throw away and the (usually) friendly "Hello Mr."s flow thick and fast if you’re a pale face. The streets are also generally safe at night and local chaps largely seem too busy squatting in the toilet position smoking cigarettes to mug you at knifepoint.

My five-minute walk from the house out to the main road for a taxi or bus is a typically Jakartan stroll. Firstly I have to negotiate the local satpam security guards who spend their lives pacing up and down the cul-de-sac outside my window. If I'm really lucky they'll be playing street badminton or pumping some hot Dangdut grooves. Then it's a quick pace up the hill avoiding swerving Bajajs and scooters. From there I plunge into one of the city's millions of alleyways where local kids subject me to the full white Negro "Mr Mr!" assault before I reach my good friend, a seemingly octogenarian fruit seller who sits all day at the front, and purchase a few slices of melon and papaya to take with me.

Finally I emerge blinking onto the cauldron of the main road and the full frontal assault of Jakarta's chaotic Brownian motion. Then I merely have to open a taxi door without knocking a motorcyclist to the ground or being knocked to the ground myself. Sharp exhalation of breath, meter running, newspaper out, shirt wringing with sweat, sorted. “Where are you going Mr?” “Nowhere Pak, nowhere at all”.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Dodgy Decade

There has been a lot of hand wringing and soul-searching in the media recently regarding the 10th anniversary of Mr. Soeharto being toppled and the start of the country's transition to democracy. The general consensus seems to be that Indonesia is still very much in transit. In fact I reckon it's barely left the depot and is currently stuck in traffic around 50 yards down the road surrounded by tofu and cigarette sellers.

Indonesia's 1998 revolution did indeed have a pretty hollow ring to it and seemingly left about 90% of Suharto's New Order regime still clinging on to the reins of power. Perhaps it all ended before it even started, when the students, stunned that the old man had finally fallen on his sword, accepted the incumbent vice president, nutty Professor BJ Habibie as his replacement.

Away from the Academy, at street level, the '98 rioters were somewhat less than egalitarian in their anti-New Order fury. Most of their revolutionary fervor seemed to be directed towards looting TV sets from shopping plazas and then setting fire to the ground floor whilst their comrades were on the upper floors nicking kitchenware from the food court. Boy did they get a surprise.

Another fun activity enjoyed by these visionary revolutionaries was breaking into ethnic Chinese homes and businesses and raping the womenfolk whilst chanting,"Allah Akbar." The ghost of the late Che Guevara, had it been drifting through the city on those dark days, may have had a few bones of contention to pick with this rather compromised struggle of the urban proletariat. "Seize control of the means of production... and then burn them down? Erm... Hang on a minute lads."

Looking back from a decade on at this historical flashpoint it seems pretty clear that the transition towards democracy has been painfully slow, if not actually completely static with regards to stuff like corruption and the legal system.

Indonesia's two big news stories of the past few weeks seem to suggest that much of the impetus for change has evaporated into the ether and that a fairer country is still a hell of a long way off.

The first story is that of the Ahmadiya Islamic sect and the government's moves to ban the group rather than to nail its colors firmly to the mast of modern secularism as it should do. I find it depressing that as soon as Indonesian society won its freedom from the political oppression of a tyrannical dictator, it immediately seeked to re-emasculate itself under the yoke of religious oppression and dogma.

Today, it is the Ahmadiya that suffer but I suspect that many of the country's Christians, Buddhists and Hindus are starting to sweat it a bit. "There is only one Islam," chant the Ahmadiya terrorizing extremists incorrectly. Indonesians are Sunni Muslims. I suggest these fundamentalists book flights to Iran or Iraq and see what reception their message receives from the Shia majorities over there.

The confusing constitution and the need to revise it are at the heart of the issue here. The constitution supposedly guarantees, "Freedom of religion." However, the nation's totemic Pancasila ideology only allows six official religions and also obliges citizens to believe in one God.

There are contradictions here. The Hindus of Bali have many gods whilst Buddhists and Confucians have no God at all. And of course it goes without saying that atheism is completely off the map. Where did they get this number one from? Presumably from the dominant monotheism.

The other great issue of the last month or so has been the government's decision to cut fuel subsidies and raise prices which has focused attention again on the desperate inequalities and poverty of Indonesian society. Acquaintances of mine have argued that it's the rich with their gas guzzling cars that have been the main beneficiaries of the fuel subsidies. In purely financial terms this is undoubtedly true, as is the fact that we should all cut down on our consumption before the planet boils alive. If fuel is kept at an artificially cheap price, people have no incentive to use it more sparingly.

However, things look different to the country's poor majority. A rise in fuel prices will no doubt lead to a rise in inflation. If you are on the breadline and lead a hand to mouth existence then a small rise of Rp 500 on your bus fare or your bag of beras (rice) is going to push you further towards the abyss.

There is no great tradition of helping the little man in this country but a nation a decade into democratic reforms should be able to organize something a little better than driving vans full of cash handouts into vacant football fields and letting the rabble descend pell-mell.

There's never a dull moment here though I'll concede that. Here's to another decade of fun.