Sunday, September 28, 2008

Metro vs. Metro

In the latest of an occasional series of columns about the parlous state of the city's transportation system, I thought that I'd venture out for a spin on one of the city's Metro Mini buses. You know the ones: those oddly shaped, orange guided missiles that steam around Jakarta's streets terrorizing and annoying other road users and pedestrians in equal measure.

Metro Minis, along with their green and white brothers, the Kopajas, are a familiar sight on the city's main arteries. I occasionally like to catch a Metro Mini for a 30 minute jaunt to Blok M for a shop which never fails to draw a few witticisms from the seemingly 14-year-old chain-smoking Konek (bus conductor) as he collects my fare.

The Metro Minis generally come in for a lot of stick from Jakarta's commuters. The drivers tend to block junctions and impede other road users by crawling at a snails pace around certain tight sections of road. The bus stops may as well not be there at all as your average Metro Mini will stop absolutely anywhere in search of that elusive extra passenger.

In their defense though, Metro Mini drivers and conductors not paid a salary and thus have to trawl for every single passenger they can get. If they were paid a wage like bus drivers in other countries then there would be no need for them to stop in the middle of junctions, provoking a fanfare of aggrieved car horns as they do so.

It would thus seem that the elites in charge are to blame. Their cheapskate approach to public services and amenities are once more in evidence here. If less money was skimmed off the top of the city budget then maybe we wouldn't have to put up with these loose cannons of mass transportation. I mean a coat of bright orange paint can't really hide the fact that these battered and bruised monsters belch lung scouring, eye stinging smoke into the environment and are so old they were probably left behind by the Japanese after World War II.

The issue of road safety is something else though and it is harder to excuse the MM drivers for tooling around like Lewis Hamilton after a heavy crack bender on purely financial grounds. They should perhaps go a bit easier on the Extra Joss and Krating Daeng energy drinks. Then again perhaps it's the cigarettes. Many drivers only need one match to start them off in the morning before a long day of chaining one cigarette off the other, punctuated by unpleasant expectorations of what we Brits call, "Dockers omelettes,” through the cab window.

Night-time brings its own Metro Mini hazards too as the powerful 2 Watt headlights and half a Watt taillights (which are obscured by thick black clouds of exhaust anyway) are switched on to full beam, turning the MMs into the invisible Stealth bombers of the streets.

All of this being the case, maybe it's safer to be inside a Metro Mini than outside of one. That's what I tell myself whenever I board one anyway. Today I jump on the bus and jam myself into a seat that gives me about 3 cm of space for my legs. The corrugated metal floor starts to heat up my feet and I settle into the full MM first class experience.

The city administration apparently wants to get petit bourgeois types out of their cars and onto public transportation. There's not much chance of that happening if the options are the overcrowded Busway or these old orange garbage cans on wheels. Class divisions are certain to continue to keep the moneyed off public transportation (that and the lack of air conditioning).

It's not impossible though to get middle-class people to give up driving into town if there's a viable working alternative. To take an example I'm familiar with, if you were to step on a London Tube train late in the evening the first thing that would strike you (apart from the appalling smell of stale urine perhaps) would be the amount of ‘posh’ people traveling home.

Back on our MM, a busker clambers on board with his Rp.50,000 acoustic guitar. The type it's impossible to tune properly. The metal strings cut into our busker's calloused fingers like cheese wire as he begins to sing. The voice isn't too bad although the mechanical limitations of his instrument begin to pall after a while.

Soon after this, the hawkers begin to board the bus with their cornucopia of knickknacks: pens, lighters, water and seven-week old squares of tofu. It's not much of a way to make a living and most of them traipse through the bus and straight out the back door like lemmings, hardly even stopping to see if anyone actually wants to buy their tat.

Eventually my stop arrives. Although it’s not much of a stop really as I, like most of my fellow Metro Mini passengers, are forced to leap kamikaze style into the traffic whilst the thing is still moving.... and there are people who laugh at me for riding a bicycle around Jakarta.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Allaaaaaaaah's Snack Bar

Idul Fitri's coming, the geese are getting fat. Well maybe not the geese perhaps but the population in general almost certainly. It's long been a fact of life in Jakarta that during the, "fasting," month, more food is consumed than at any other time of the year.

Far from Ramadan being a time to distance oneself from corporeal appetites and focus one's thoughts on the divine, the holy month in Jakarta is a time of inflation, unexpected traffic jams at odd times and, above all, heroic feats of fast breaking gluttony.

Stroll into any shopping mall food court just after 6 p.m. and you could be mistaken for thinking that you blundered into some crazed Coney Island hotdog eating contest only with the dogs replaced by fried rice and the time-honored charms of the Baso ball.

If you can find anything left to chow down on you'll then have the challenge of finding somewhere to sit among the assembled Sambal-oholics. The gustation continues in earnest into the wee small hours as hungry followers of the world's fastest-growing faith try and shovel in an amount of carbohydrates that would have top Olympian Michael Phelps reaching from the Pepsobismol.

Why the calorie levels go off the scale to the extent that they do during the fasting month is anyone's guess. Perhaps it's like Catholic schoolboys and self abuse. The prohibition only makes them want to do it more.

After the bull seals have gorged and built up reserves of fat that should see them through a hard winter's sitting in traffic, it's off home to watch a few Sinetron soap operas in which the usual philanderers and white-collar criminals are now suddenly seen sporting religious garb, a pious overlay that only serves to add a layer of deviousness to their skullduggery.

Fasting and then gorging like this leave a bad taste in the mouth (that’ll be the Baso) in a country where malnutrition still runs rife. Many in far flung provinces don't have the option of the 6 p.m. bloat out and sleep on empty stomachs, regardless of their religion.

Of course there is the Muslim tradition of giving alms to the poor during Ramadan but you sometimes wonder who extracts the most benefit out of this, the poor receiving their paltry kilo of rice or the rich whose consciences are salved by such annual displays of extremely modest largesse.

Certainly the poor of East Java didn't fare very well this week, 21 of them dying in a stampede of thousands as they try to get their calloused mittens on a miserable Rp.40,000.

Of course from the perspective of an infidel atheist (who is kind to small animals I might add) science is an important lens through which to view the strangeness of religious rituals such as fasting. Evolutionary biology and anthropology tell us that the ascetic rigor and exclusivity of the world's three main monotheisms originated in one of the world's harshest environments (outside of the Arctic Circle). Conversely, more fertile, tropical areas of the planet tend to give rise to more inclusive, laid-back polytheistic religions.

This can be no coincidence surely. Indonesia's easy-going Epicurean fertility tends to the latter but has had the strictness of the former overlaid over the top as an inflexible moral template in recent centuries. The harsh mindset of the desert doesn't come easily here and it's perhaps this mismatch between intention and desire that has led to the country's delusional, dishonest and corrupt social and political culture.

But that's enough theorizing for now. Actually thinking again about the Arctic Circle, it's amazing that the Eskimos didn't come up with something even more totalitarian than our desert influenced monotheisms. Those icy winds should surely have put some steely zeal in their hearts. I guess the fasting would be a problem though if there were six months of daylight at a time. A crash diet like that could have serious consequences although possibly the rotund Gus Dur would still be going strong when the sun finally set after half a year.

Thankfully this year the FPI (Islamic Popular Front) have again been quiet and have refrained from smashing up bars with big sticks. The FPI’s blinkered and childishly reductive interpretations of their religion are clearly a treasonous insult to the traditions of scholarship and debate that lie at Islam's birth.

Unfortunately though the pornography bill, a draconian piece of legislation designed to stop people kissing their wives in public or wearing skimpy outfits, looks set to be passed during the next week as, and I quote,” A Ramadan gift," to the people. Indonesia's politicians certainly know all about gifts that's for sure, although usually they are the kind given in brown envelopes. On the bright side though, I'm looking forward to mass bikini clad anti porn bill protests in the New Year. The Jakarta Post this week summed up the whole controversy brilliantly with a perhaps unintentionally punning headline that read," Resistance Mounts Against Porn Bill". Happy Christmas.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Fart of Darkness

I was recently lucky enough to be able to put some distance between myself and Jakarta's boggy boulevards. Leaving “Dry” land behind, I ventured out onto the high seas for a day's drinking bourbon on deck in the hot sun whilst turning a virulent shade of lobster pink.

Traditionally, the city's bourgeois weekend yachtsmen have moored their fabulously expensive toys at Ancol Marina. However, a few months ago, the new Batavia Marina opened the business just next to the traditional cargo docks at Sunda Kelapa in the north of town. This new Marina boasts a pristine new building which contains a bar, a restaurant, a billiards room and a full conference hall. The contrast between this glittering high-class clubhouse and the ragged trousered, weather-beaten old coves with dental work like burnt out villages who unload the battered old ships next door couldn't be more marked but that's Jakarta to a tee I guess. The perennial highlife-lowlife contrast.

My friend the captain, the good Mr Hans, is a long-time German expatriate. With a beard full of barnacles and many years of sailing experience behind him Mr. Hans had some amazing yarns on the subject of piracy on the ocean wave which he spun with great enthusiasm as we skipped across the diamond sea.

In fact though, the sea wasn't actually very diamond like until we were well out of Jakarta Bay. The two or three km of ocean closest to the shore aren’t so much diamond as diarrhoea. It never ceases to amaze me when I see kids swimming through the sludge at Ancol beach whilst a Chernobyl-esque power station belches industrial waste in the middle distance and estuaries of turds spill out into the open sewer of the sea. Er.. I'm sorry; I hope I haven't put you off your Sunday lunch.

Rather optimistically, one of our number elected to come on the boat with his fishing rod. His line baited with finest supermarket squid, he cast his line into the sludgy industrial toxins of Jakarta Bay as we headed further out. Funnily enough he caught nothing whatsoever during the entire trip although I guess there was always an outside chance of snagging a six-foot long radioactive mutant with two heads and four tails.

The fish weren't biting however and so I turned to our sea captain for entertainment and a few tales of yore. He confirmed that navigating the waters around Indonesia could often be a risky business due to the large number of nefarious nautical types ready to pounce at the first available opportunity.

Indonesia's seas, some of the most pirate ridden on the planet, hit the news a decade ago during the financial crisis when economic hardship caused crime on the ocean wave to rocket. Various tales of cruise ships held to ransom by desperate local fishermen and the like surfaced at the time.

Captain Hans assured me that piracy in Indonesian waters has decreased somewhat since those desperate days but that there are still plenty of Jolly Roger hoisters out there ready to chance their arm. Sailors consequently need to keep their wits about them at all times even though pirates in this country are much less likely to have guns on them than their peers in the Philippines.

There are various danger signs to watch out for apparently including boats some distance off that appear to be moving parallel to your own. This technique is used by pirates to try and match and gauge their target’s speed before attacking. Also sailors should beware if there's no one on the deck of a nearby ship ready to exchange a friendly wave.

Our captain has apparently had various narrow escapes in his time. He once had to smash his way through a ring of smaller boats surrounding him. Another time he had to emerge from below deck screaming like a banshee with a large kitchen knife in his hand in order to scare off some would-be attackers. On another occasion he saw off a suspicious boat by brandishing a length of tubing as if it was a rifle which evidently, at the distance they were at, fooled these would-be assailants into thinking twice about assailing the good captain’s vessel.

I was starting to feel a trifle nervous after all these stories. Eventually we moored off the coast of one of the nearest of the Pulau Seribu (Thousand Islands) and swam through the clearer waters onto the tiny island.

About 30 local Jakartans were packing up ready to depart as we arrived. They had been enjoying their annual day trip out to the Thousand Islands although seemingly hadn't found any buried treasure. For them it was enough to have a nice swim in some clear water without catching some interesting new skin disease presumably.

They soon set sail in their overcrowded, creaky old wooden crate of a vessel; its filthy, spluttering superannuated outboard motor shattering the peace for miles around. Pretty much the oceangoing equivalent of one of Jakarta's orange Metro Mini buses. And good luck to them too. Bloody 60 foot long luxury catamarans draped with bikini clad lovelies. Who needs ‘em?

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Stairway to Heaven

The Bali bombers’ saga is currently limping onwards towards it squalid and inevitable conclusion. A hail of bullets should soon be offloaded at its three unrepentant protagonists, after a final trio of Gudang Garam cigarettes I shouldn’t wonder. Amrozi, Imam Samudra and Ali Gufron have been tying themselves in logical knots in recent weeks, protesting the death penalty one moment and embracing martyrdom the next.

For example, Gufron and Samudra recently signed a letter stating, "It is forbidden for me to accept execution because killing a Muslim is a cowardly and criminal act and is very sinful." Why anyone’s supposed to give a battery operated shag about what these murderers can or can't accept isn’t made explicitly clear in the text of the letter but anyway, Allah’s own grim reapers blithely continue, “Those who have planned and intentionally commit it will provoke God's wrath and curse and will be sent to hell for all eternity." Give yourself three gold stars and a pat on the back if you’ve spotted the 747 sized flaw in this argument, namely that, along with many Australians, plenty of Muslims also died in the Bali blasts.

Moreover of course, Sharia Law, a system supported by the Bali three, supports the death penalty. Capital punishment appears to be advocated by the Qur'an itself in the following verse. "If anyone kills a person, unless it be for murder or spreading mischief in the land, it would be as if he killed all people." (Qu'ran 5:32). The phrase, "spreading mischief in the land," in particular suffers from the typical vagueness inherent in our two millennia old monotheisms and their accompanying holy books and has been used to justify all kinds of murder down through the centuries.

Casual conversations with friends and letters to the Jakarta Post in recent weeks have depressed me somewhat in their support for the death penalty. The Bali bombing easily excites emotions of course, especially the lack of repentance expressed by its perpetrators. Most of these angry Westerners looking forward to the three executions come from enlightened, strongly secular countries however in which the use of the death penalty has long been outlawed (the good old US of A and Ol' Sparky would be a notable exception here).

I would suggest that it ill befits critics of fundamentalist Islam to advocate a central tenet of its ideology. The replication of the original act of murder in the form of capital punishment is philosophically and ethically problematic. Surely we should be seeking to rise above a legalized and codified form of revenge. As Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye will make the world go blind”, maybe that’s why he wore glasses.

Advocates of the death penalty claim that it acts as a deterrent, a fact that isn't borne out by the statistics. Detractors such as myself would say that capital punishment works against our evolving sense of morality and human rights and leads to a culture of violence and bloodlust.

Unfortunately though, the problems with life imprisonment for the Bali Three are both the creaking machinations of the Indonesian justice system and the often porous nature of jails here. The bombers in question presumably don't have the financial wherewithal for a Tommy Suharto style custodial sentence: puffing cigars in a specially constructed jailhouse Jacuzzi surrounded by bikini clad lovelies (allegedly). There is, however, the very real danger that these three stooges will be regarded as heroes by those surrounding them and may even eventually be sprung from their cells.

So what to do, what to do? How to punish appropriately in this case? I guess they could always be tied to a chair with their eyes clamped open like Malcolm in A Clockwork Orange whilst being made to watch Australian soap operas and American TV evangelists all day long. That would give them something to chew on; I can almost hear the bloodcurdling screams now.

For those of you still sticking with your firing squad fantasies of vengeance however, I would urge you to at least think creatively. There are many ways to administer the ultimate sentence. Burning, boiling to death, the breaking wheel, crucifixion (line on the left, one cross each), disembowelment, drawing and quartering, electrocution, flaying, garroting, gassing, guillotine, hanging, impalement, lethal injection, marooning, nitrogen asphyxiation (apparently the most painless, humane way to die), poisoning, sawing in half, firing squad, Phil Collins compact disc on repeat, slow slicing, starvation, stoning... I mean I could go on.

Marooning would be a particularly apposite method for the Indonesian Archipelago I reckon. Perhaps Suharto's infamous gulag, Buru Island, one-time penal home of legendary author Pramoedya Ananta Toer, could be revived.

We could dump our jolly Jihadis on the beach there with only a six foot tall Tupperware container of bacon sandwiches, 50 liters of Jack Daniels and 3 Ozzie surfboards for company. Alas this would probably lead to some ghastly media interest, perhaps even an MTV created reality show called Terrorist Island or something: first martyr in Paradise wins an advertising endorsement contract with Honda.

By far the best course of action as far as I'm concerned would be for us to lock Messrs Amrozi, Samudra and Gufron away securely, ignore them and live in peace and harmony with each other regardless of religion, race or creed for all eternity, amen. I suspect that Terrorist Island is the more likely outcome though.
Well if the football’s not on I’m going to need some alternative entertainment.