Saturday, January 31, 2009

Blue Monday

Well, this working week came up thankfully on the short side because of Monday's Chinese New Year’s holiday. I suppose I could, at this point, discourse deeply on the sociopolitical status of Indonesia's ethnic Chinese Diaspora but I can't really be stuffed with all that to be frank.

I can recall first becoming aware of the ethnic Chinese issue though when I first arrived in Indonesia, more years ago now than I care to remember. I had just graduated from the politically correct hothouse of a UK university and was shocked to find brute, ugly racism emanating from one of the normally so friendly and polite Indonesians that I was now proud to call my friends.

"I hate the Chinese!" He hissed.
"Eh? Whassat?!" I replied
“Yes, I hate these people in my country!"
"Erm... I don’t think that it’s really on to say things like that these days old chap. And anyway, they were born here; it's their country too, surely?"

My sense of discomfort at experiencing the atavistic unreason of Javanese hegemony for the first time was a bit of a rude awakening for me. Antidiscrimination laws and Barongsai dances are slowly chipping away at this monolithic bigotry but there's still a way to go here I guess. On the plus side though, I've noticed that a few of this year’s election candidates, currently beaming down benignly from every available wall and lamppost in town, are ethnic Chinese and this seems like a very encouraging sign.

Last Monday, above all else however, was a national holiday, a 'Tanggal merah' (red date on the calendar) and it afforded us a glorious long weekend of fun and frolics. Indonesia’s oft downtrodden workforce treasure such days and look on them as a fine opportunity to head out to sites of interest armed with mountains of snacks and hand phone cameras.

Last Monday's holiday instilled in me a deep sense of nostalgia for the great British Bank Holiday Mondays of my youth; traditionally times when families drive out to horrendous zoos or overcrowded sites of historical interest. After an afternoon of wandering around with Grandma and the whining kids, these day tripping nuclear families then join huge motorway tailbacks and head home whilst the little ones lean out of the car window and throw up their ice creams or demand to go and relieve themselves in a layby. Ah, memories.
My Jakarta Bank Holiday pretty much followed the UK model, but minus the bodily fluids thank the Lord. After watching a Chinese Barongsai dragon dance up in Kota I headed on to the famous Taman Fatahillah Square and sure enough, found that it was packed with day trippers checking out Jakarta's colonial heritage and generally making a mess of the place.

In the centre of the square, a crowd was gathered around a performing family who were out to make a few Rupiah off the holidaying hordes. This ragtag group of Javanese gypsies were similar to the ones I've seen back in Britain in fact although perhaps less likely to dump a burnt mattress in your back garden (careful Simon, these are traveling Romany folk with a fine tradition behind them, let’s not go down the race route).

After a few minutes of fire eating and blowing facilitated, rather off-puttingly, by mouthfuls of kerosene, the father of the family pulled out a rope and a sack and proceeded to truss up his six-year-old daughter like an air mail parcel. The Junior Houdini then performed an amazing feat of escapology before her brother took centre stage. This young chap managed to squeeze himself through a tiny barrel whilst the percussion accompaniment spiraled up to a fever pitch. I made a donation of Rp.10,000 and headed off through town fearing that a sawing the mother in half trick would be the next item on the bill.

The normally rammed Mangga Dua was like a Chinese ghost town as I shot past. Presently I rocked up at Ancol, Jakarta's premier vomit and urine soaked Bank Holiday destination of choice. Families were camped all along the seashore, enjoying noodle filled picnics and paddling in the radioactive waters. Of course they were cherishing one of their few days off in the year before returning shoulders to the grindstone and once more toiling to bring home the bacon (actually, what do Muslims bring home?)

I count 18 red days on this year's calendar, well, on the one stuck up in my office anyway and God knows we’re going to need each and every one of them. Waking up like clockwork at 7 a.m. every morning and suffering the same routine every day until we die, is not what our cousins, the noble beasts in the jungles and fields would ever be caught doing.

If you're still not with me on my anti-Protestant work ethic mission this week then you may wish to consider reading renowned biologist Robert Sapolsky's excellent book Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers which really puts the robotic stresses of the human condition in a tense and hectic city such as Jakarta into perspective. Forget Obama's new climate of hard graft and austerity. Ask not what you can do for your country but when you can have a holiday. I’ll see you all up at Ancol next weekend.