Saturday, March 28, 2009

Toys R Us

Browsing a down-market shopping plaza can be tremendous fun on occasion. Strolling around a cheap mall and buying a big plastic bag full of low-grade tat can be so much more enjoyable than the depression and ennui I feel when taking a turn around some of the snobby boutiques and designer lifestyle outlets of the city’s more anodyne, high-class consumer pleasure domes. My negative feelings are at least partly related to the parlous condition of my bank balance, but that’s life.

The city’s ITCs are always good value for a spot of bargain hunting though, and are the modern equivalent of the traditional pasar , only without the appalling smell of course. Walking around one recently, I came across a fascinating little store selling all manner of knickknack. One can perhaps deduce a lot about the Indonesian capital from the items on sale at this fascinating counter.

There were lava lamps, practical jokes and horror masks aplenty (and what is Jakarta if not some horrific practical joke?), as well as a veritable library of replacement TV remote controls.

I also came across several types of what are known as marital aids or adult requisites. This adult Toys “R” Us section contained a number of large as life pleasure devices for both genders (batteries not included). Also on display were boxes of what appeared to be Viagra (but were probably dog deworming tablets), as well as various intimate creams and even inflatable chums.

I briefly considered buying a blowup lady and installing her in front of the TV watching a sinetron drama while I went down the pub for a pint, to see if married life agreed with me, but thought better of it. I was rather under the impression that such items were banned in Indonesia for being “culturally inappropriate,” as the phrase goes.

Mind you, many things that are technically illegal here are not in fact hard to track down. Dirty films, for example, are obviously illegal in this nominally 90 percent Muslim country. The reality though would seem to be that Indonesians are vociferous consumers of “Jazz movies.” One certainly doesn’t have to look very far in order to find the things. In fact, if you’re a white-skinned man looking through the latest Hollywood blockbusters at a roadside stall they’ll usually find you.

A typical conversation usually goes like this:

- Can I help you, sir?

- I’m just looking for some new films, thanks.

- How about this one, sir?

- “Vanilla Sky” featuring pint-sized, perma-grinning Scientology nut job Tom Cruise. It’s a bit old isn’t it?

- How about this one then, sir?

- “Bottom Capers 9,” ay? Is that with Tom Cruise too?

- No, sir.

- Excellent, I’ll take a copy.

Meanwhile, men in pecis, or Islamic hats, walk past on their way to the mosque. I love this city of contrasts alright. From G-spots to jihad without batting an eyelid.

We are now living in a post-porn law Indonesia. Not that you’d notice if you went for a drive around some of the city’s more infamous streets. Stall after stall can be seen selling Viagra, condoms and “special interest” DVDs along JalanHayam Wuruk, while girls totter up and down the sidewalks. Perhaps strange considering that even mildly risque attire can theoretically get one prosecuted under the new pornography law.

In fact, some surrounding countries have been moving in the opposite direction from Indonesia in recent years. In Singapore, for example, a country known for its prohibition on oral sex (how do they enforce that one?), lap dances and a new sexual freedom seem to have become the order of the day. Even in China, homosexuality, previously a great taboo, has entered the realms of debate in recent years. Indonesia, with its new law and Shariah-based regional edicts, rather seems to be kicking against the pricks in this sense (actually that’s a rather unfortunate turn of phrase to use).

I digress, though. What else is on offer down at my ITC stall? Well, there are some frightening personal security devices, including Tazers and telescopic metal coshes. A Tazer is a hand-held gizmo that delivers a massive electric shock to would-be assailants, causing them to drop to the floor like a sack of potatoes. The coshes also look quite fearsome. Which one should you buy though? Both are going to hurt, although presumably the cosh is less painful if you accidentally leave it lying on the sofa and then sit on it. A 2,000-volt shock to the buttocks is one bottom caper probably best avoided. It would seem though that there’s a growing market for these weapons. Mind you, some of the marital aids I saw on sale looked potentially just as lethal as any Tazer. Personally, I opted to save my pennies and headed for the food court. Honest.

Would I lie to you?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Show Me the Money

Economies worldwide took another nosedive last week and currently seem to have been, as the old saying goes, "Flopped lower than whale shit". I doubt much will change in terms of our political and economic systems on the back of all this however. Wages in the West have been falling in real terms for the average working person for the last 30 years whilst banking heads still have the chutzpah to award themselves multimillion dollar bonuses, despite several previous crashes of our seemingly inherently unstable market system. Your average Joe has had to increasingly borrow the difference to make up the shortfall in his shrinking pay packet and put his trust in the smoke and mirrors of, in Bush-speak, the unreality based community of the world’s bumptious bankers. It's a rum do all right.

Okay, well that's the developed world, fine. Forget average Joe for a moment though and consider average Jamal, your run-of-the-mill, salt of the earth Indonesian chap (or chapess I should stress). For Jamal, every year seems like crisis year for he has rarely ever had much of a pot to micturate in.

According to the Central Statistics Agency, in 2008, 34.96 million people were living in poverty in Indonesia even though GDP had reached the highest level in the nation's history. I rather suspect that figure of 34.96 million to be a trifle on the low side and, of course, GDP is a very poor way of measuring the health of a country as it takes absolutely no account of how that money is (or in Indonesia's case isn't) distributed.

No, forget the bureaucrats in their ivory towers at the Central Statistics Agency. If you want to learn about how relative power is distributed in a strict patriarchal family you don't ask the father, you asked the mother. With this rule of thumb in mind, I thought I'd take a brief look at an average Jamal's monthly income and expenditure this week.

Now, our average Jamal (not his real name) is actually someone I know. He works a normal 9-to-5 daily shift in an office from Monday to Friday and gets paid a whopping Rp.1,800,000 or thereabouts for his pains. How average this makes him could be the subject of fierce debate, certainly there are plenty worse off than our man but let's stay with my amateur accounting for a while.

Okay, well let's look at monthly travel expenses first. Jamal gets two buses to the office every day at Rp.2500 per fare. So that's Rp.10,000 a day times 20 working days, give or take, leaving us with Rp.1,600,000 to play with. Now Mr J. stays in a cheap boarding house or kost , one of the ones consisting of chipboard partitioned rooms, the occupants of which can hear their immediate neighbors farting and moaning all night long. For this dubious privilege he plays the princely sum of Rp.800,000 per month. Leaving us bringing home bacon to the tune of Rp.800,000 (actually we should probably change the bacon metaphor to baso just to avoid any offence). Now let's take another Rp.150,000 off for mobile phone credits (a conservative estimate by my reckoning),Rp.50,000 for toiletries and birth control devices (providing our man is getting any of course) and Rp.100,000 for clothes.

Okay, so we're down to our last Rp.500,000. Now Mr J. also sends Rp.200,000 home every month to his even more breadline family in Java and spends around another Rp.200,000 on entertainment. Hmmm. We're down to Rp.100,000 already and alas, Mr. Jamal usually tries to save around this amount every month as a contribution towards his annual Lebaran trip home .

Okay good. We seem to be in a state of fiscal balance... no... hang on a moment. I've missed something out haven't I? Ah yes, food. A bit of a luxury on this salary I feel. In fact many is the time that I've wondered whether people such as Jamal that are able to photosynthesize on the sly, unable as I am to work out how they make ends meet.

And so April 9th brings an election to Indonesia. Who should a Young, ambitious, nutritionally challenged citizens such as Jamal vote for? It's hard to say isn't it? They don't seem to be a lot of class conscious agendas, mass movements of working people or party manifestoes kicking about the place. There isn't even a Green party that might be able to advise Mr J. on more advanced photosynthesis techniques.

Poor show indeed. Oh well. Are those consumption mad, elite fat cats in their BMWs any happier do you think? Perhaps not. Who is the richer: a man who has the most or the man who wants for the least? I sometimes like to take comfort in the ideas of that most inveterately miserable of all philosophers, Mr. Schopenhauer. For Schopenhauer, material and physical desires are a terrible thing. Our earthly desires are largely never satisfied, which is true for about 99% of us most of the time. However, the lucky 1% has it even worse, for their desires are satiated and in that satiation, Schopenhauer says, lies almost immediate and total boredom. And on that cheery note, I’ll take my leave for another week.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Riding the Gravy Train

This week finds me in rather ill health. My usual lean mean fighting machine demeanor has taken a severe battering from that familiar old local foe, the dodgy plate of rice. It could have been a fish in chili sauce, it could have been the Jengkol beans that Indonesians always laugh at me for being fond of. Experience tells me however that a rogue prawn may have been to blame, one should always fear those warung prawns. It's hard to say with any degree of accuracy without the aid of my personal proctologist, the good Doctor Schweinsteiger, last seen heading for Bangkok with a suitcase full of prophylactics.

All of this speculation is rather shutting the rest room door after the horse has farted however. Once a classic Jakartan food poisoning has commenced and you find yourself spending more time on the commode than Elvis did during his later 2 foot long peanut butter and banana sandwich period (albeit for the opposite reason) you have to be a bit proactive.

If you can drag yourself away from the smallest room long enough, then head round to your local chemist or drugstore for a plastic bag full of medicinal sweeties. My first line of attack is usually the charcoal tablets. These are popular in Indonesia and are supposed to cleanse one’s system of organic toxins. They certainly make for a colorful variation on the usual lavatory experience but I have my doubts as to their true efficacy. Rehydration salts also go into the bag although generally I swear by the restorative powers of a few bottles of Heineken which is simply packed full of essential vitamins, minerals and electrolytes. Enzyplex tablets are also worth buying and are full of good digestive enzymes that may restore some Zen calm to your tremulous bowels. A strip of mild antibiotics will knock whatever it is you've got on the head if all else fails, leaving you lemon fresh and ready for action again.

Other more traditional herbal remedies have also been recommended to me at one time or another however I rather suspect that the local manufacturers of these potions have foregone the scientific rigor of strict clinical double-blind trials. An Indonesian friend of mine once gave me some Chinese diarrhea medicine that she swore would work. However she also swore to me on a separate occasion that she once saw a man walking on the sea and a snake as big as a banana tree, so perhaps she can't be relied upon for the most reliable medical testimony.

Despite my tri-annual battle with intestinal turmoil, nothing but nothing will stop me enjoying my daily lunchtime fix of cheap Indonesian food. I'm a martyr to the stuff it would seem. My local shack, one of around 5 million in the capital, let's me eat heartily after selecting from a dozen tubs of brightly colored and above all delicious vegetable and meat dishes. Okay so the food is never refrigerated safely in these places but who needs fridges when you have a dainty little antibacterial net curtain behind the food to keep the microbes at bay.

Aside from the odd es jeruk (orange juice) that tastes like washing-up liquid, I generally can't seem to get enough of the fare on offer at these roadside palaces. I maintain that it is possible to eat pretty healthily hereto if you avoid the fried stuff and the dishes that are heavy on the coconut cream. Rice, vegetables and grilled fish or chicken plus a free colonic irrigation sessions three times a year, all for Rp.15,000 a go, who can argue with that? After a decent lunch, and if I'm not feeling violently ill already, I like to finish off with a few slices of watermelon and pineapple from the food cart outside.

In fact, it amazes me, that Western fast food franchises ever manage to get a foothold here at all but I suppose that you can always rely on the power of the aspirational consumer and her insatiable desire for a slice of Americana. It does, however, never cease to amaze me how such tasty Indonesian delights and fresh dishes manage to emerge from kitchens that look like Guatemalan prison cells after a heavy riot.

There are limits to how far I'm prepared to go in search of a cheap Indonesian meal however. Baso (Indonesian meat balls) are definitely off the menu as far as I'm concerned. These gelignite and plasticine monstrosities are, for reasons that remain unclear to me, loved with an almost sexual fervor by virtually all Indonesian females. When there's so much other appetizing stuff on offer why opt for these flaccid things? On the other hand, one is perhaps unlikely to become ill after a good Baso chomp session as I very much doubt that anything organic could live on the stuff.

Anyway, I'm going to have to draw things to a hasty conclusion for another week as nature is once again calling. And so, as smoke starts to drift up from my struggling water pump downstairs, it’s time to once more get the waters of life a flowing, open a copy of the Globe and have a damned good sit down. Will I never be set free?

Saturday, March 07, 2009

By The Book

The social networking site Facebook has been in the news a lot recently. This is mostly due to privacy issues regarding the data of hundreds of millions of users. But other, more socio-psychological, issues have been raised as well. In a recent article in the Guardian, a leading neuroscientist claimed that Facebook risked infantilizing the 21st-century mind, leaving it “characterized by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathize and a shaky sense of identity.”

The fast action and reaction times of our Internet matrix desiring machines are making cyberspace junkies of us all. Perhaps our central nervous systems are being accelerated up to speed before we all upload our minds into a future computational “singularity,” as it has been dubbed by techno-seers, such as Ray Kurzweil.

All I know for sure is that we seem to be nearing some kind of tipping point after which we will be found spending more time communicating with people online than we do in the flesh. Sometimes, when I see a group of Jakarta teenagers sitting around a table in a cafe, frantically pushing buttons, absorbed in their own screen worlds as opposed to talking to each other, I think that this threshold has already been exceeded. The now ubiquitous “crackberry” has hugely exacerbated this.

Indonesians are sociable to a tee of course, and Facebook seems well suited to this society. In fact, this country represents Asia’s fastest growing pool of Facebook users, with a growth rate of a whopping 645 percent in the last year. My office has just blocked the site from its servers, and with good reason. The growth rate that I just mentioned is probably inversely proportional to productivity in the workplace.

While we’re on the subject though, let’s quickly map out some of the virtual topography of the land of Facebook.

Friend Requests: I always knew that my unusual name would come in handy one day and, accordingly, old school friends have been able to track me down much more easily than I have them. It is truly amazing though that old school chums that you would have never seen again for the rest of your life can now be found, contacted and then forgotten about all over again. Sociologists tell us that we can only maintain adequate relationships with around a hundred people, however some Facebook addicts have well over a thousand people on their lists.

Status Updates: This is the little box that says “Simon is…?” followed by a handy blank line for one to fill in with some kind of vapid summation of one’s current activities. I rather think though that “Simon isn’t…?” would be nearer the mark, as in, “Simon isn’t hiking up Mount Merapi, learning the clarinet or whispering sweet nothings into the ear of a topless Balinese maiden because he’s frittering his life away in front of his computer.”

Groups: People seem all too willing to convene these wacky collectives but then precious little seems to happen afterwards. Certainly not much activism or social capital seems to be generated. In fact, I take the Guardian’s point about the infantilization of the mind as there is a definite school playground feel to the comments that circulate through old FB; a feeling of arrested development and of brain cells popping by the dozen.

Profiles: What with the whole world gleefully punching every scintilla of their personal data into Facebook, there is probably little need for the Orwellian government profiling and databases that are currently being compiled in the spurious name of national security by developed nations. Last week, a huge demonstration in London was held to protest against the Gestapo Big Brother toilet that British civil liberties are currently being flushed down by its government. Perhaps though, it is inevitable that our new electronic “Utopia” will head in a direction of greater social transparency. Mind you, perhaps all is cultural. We Westerners are used to a bit of privacy, but here people simply accept that every Tom, Dick and Bambang in their kampong knows their most intimate business.

Photo Tagging: What really seems to concern Facebook users at the moment is the prospect of being tagged in an uncompromising photo by the swine that they choose to call their friends. Barack Obama’s speechwriter, the youthful Jon Favreau, was recently busted tweaking the nipple of a cardboard cutout of Hillary Clinton. (Mind you, it could have been the real HC. It’s hard to tell the difference.) Closer to home, a friend of mine was recently worried that his girlfriend would be browsing Facebook and chance upon a photo of her drunken beau in a similar situation to Favreau in a Jakarta bar. In this case, however, the victim was undeniably three dimensional. Facebook — destroying relationships since 2003.

Friendster still remains the number-one choice for Indonesian Web surfers, over 60 percent of whom have Friendster accounts. Facebook, with its superior user interface, is coming up fast on the rails however. Expect to be “poked” by your local cleric soon.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Join the Club

Browsing the Globe's online archives last week I chanced upon a recent feature entitled, Converting for Love. The piece took a look at non-Indonesians (usually males, it has to be said) who have converted to Islam in order to marry their Indonesian partners. Most of the interviewees seemed very upbeat about life and said that they didn't miss the bacon sandwiches (I'm presuming they weren't lying here).

During my time in Indonesia I have also known a fine body of men who have converted to Islam in order to marry their local lady friends. In fact, only last weekend, my recently departed ex-housemate tied the knot with his girlfriend in a traditional Islamic wedding ceremony held in Kemang.

The happy day had finally arrived for my associate however his conversion last month had irked him somewhat. The vicar down the mosque had had a 10 point checklist which he had methodically run through. The list speciously set out why Islam was the one true path and why all other religions were wrong. Hmmm. After all the boxes had been ticked, my chum was declared a member of the world's fastest-growing faith and was now free to get hitched to his I mean betrothed.

Mind you, that's nothing compared to the sine qua non pre-marriage conversion that another acquaintance of mine went through a couple of years back. As he entered the mosque, his bag was checked by mosque security, who joked with him, "I'm just checking to see if you've got a bomb in here." My friend shot back as quick as a flash, "I didn't know you needed one." Rather cheeky although, ultimately, cosmic karma was restored when our jokester woke up half way through his circumcision operation after being given insufficient dose of anesthetic. That'll teach him to make offensive jokes.

Fast forwarding to last weekend’s wedding though, my departed housemate's nuptials were in many respects the classically Indonesian. The bride and groom stood up on stage flanked by the in-laws and shook hands with all of their friends before traditionally dressed Ibu Ibu, sporting the kind of voluminously coiffured hairstyles that look as if they could shatter in a hard frost, attacked the buffet like vultures swooping on carrion.

Being a mixed marriage though, there were plenty of palefaces in attendance. Most of them seemed to naturally congregate, in their ill fitting Batik shirts, at the side of the hall which was serving Heineken. There they stood, juggling glasses of beer and plates of food whilst chatting jovially (for some reason there always seems to be a lack of chairs and tables at Indonesian weddings). After the formalities, proffered congratulations and photo sessions were over, we retired back to my friend's new pad for a more informal shindig.

And so married life begins from my newly converted friend with the full blessing of his new faith. Other couples who choose mixed faith marriages don't have things quite so easy in Indonesia however. Many mixed religion marriages apparently fail here. This could be down to more corporeal, cultural factors however Indonesia is a country in which mixed faith marriages seem almost doomed to failure from the off. Couples have to leave the country even to register their marriage as being of mixed faith, which perhaps doesn't give their union the most auspicious start. Couples also face rejection from both parents and the community at large and what with the country's Ulema passing increasingly batty edicts regarding yoga and smoking, this situation can’t be getting any easier. I wish they would issue an edict prohibiting displays of public bigotry and ignorance. Then they could declare a fatwa on themselves and give us all a break.

Thankfully, there are some brave pioneers who are willing to pursue this more pluralist view of marriage. Good luck to them I say. In a country that has seen more than its share of internecine religious bloodshed over the years, and a world in which ethnic boundaries are being increasingly blurred by the synaptic networks of our technology, mixed religious marriage should perhaps be a paradigm to aspire to rather than an aberration to shun.

Mixed marriage is a question asked about the future of society in this country and something that we need a good old dialectic on. Maybe Islam could be the thesis, Christianity the antithesis and the well-balanced, open-minded children of mixed religion marriage, the much-needed synthesis.

Such marriages need not throw up the kind of child rearing problems that afflicted Woody Allen in one of his gags. Woody claimed that he was an agnostic who married an atheist and consequently the two of them didn't know which religion not to bring their children up in.

The current crop of religious deniers (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, et al) have all noted the religious labeling and the indoctrination of children in their work. We wouldn't label a five-year-old child a Marxist or a Keynesian but we seemingly have no objection to labeling him or her Muslim, Christian or Jewish and sending him to a religious school. How about letting them grow up first and then letting them decide for themselves? Amen.