Saturday, June 27, 2009

Adventures in Mega Reality

Last week's first televised Debat Capres (Presidential Candidates' Debate) proved to be a bit of a damp squib in many people’s opinions. Aside from Mega's hopes for a, "Bouncy nation," an aspiration I'm sure most red-blooded males can get behind, the debate was, by contrast, pancake flat and frankly not even a debate at all in any commonly accepted sense of the word. Moreover, every five minutes of verbatim regurgitated and almost identical political platitudes came accompanied by about ten minutes of adverts.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that the cultural malaise that has pretty much erased all political and ideological differences in the West has now arrived in Indonesia. According to the great philosopher of our technologically advanced, information overloaded age, Jean Baudrillard, our great traditions of politics and philosophy have now passed over into the realms of advertising, movies, television and the spectacle and are now mere simulations of their former selves.

In keeping with Baudrillard's concept of hyper-reality (more real than real) SBY, hovering around the 62 percent mark on the digital ticker at the bottom of the screen during the 'debate', is seemingly popular for being popular. Like Madonna and Ronald Reagan before him, SBY's very popularity, rather than anything especially substantive, is popular.

Mega, on the other hand, who often comes across as if the stick up her posterior has got to stick up its posterior, is also a postmodern dream. The daughter of Indonesia's founding president often seems as insubstantial as a hologram, paradigmatically real but not much else, a vacant nationalistic digital simulation constituted entirely by the rose tinted, reflected glow of her father.

Meanwhile, in the TV studio, the usual failing microphones and missed cues are the only thing that disrupts the seamlessly banal flow of images, adverts and cliches and symbolize the still remaining vestiges of the failing world outside and the fact that real people still sleep in the cracks of the pavements of our new PR designed, digital wrap around, hyper-real simulation of the Indonesian body politic. Just text us your vote, and democracy will flourish.

After the presidential debate, I thought that I'd also hit the pavements in order to inject a much-needed dose of real reality into my election coverage. I didn't want to end up like Baudrillard himself who, during the first Gulf war, refused an offer to travel to Iraq to cover events. Remaining true to his postmodern theories, he instead chose to file his reports from his Paris flat, sitting in front of his CNN filled TV screen where, "The war really happened."

No, it was time to sally forth to Mega and Prabowo's media centre, handily located in the Prapanca area in an ex-Padang restaurant that I often used to frequent. Outside, the unlikely pairing of Mega and Prabowo, my least favorite presidential ticket, beamed down benignly from a huge banner.

I entered and received a warm welcome from the assembled cadres. After being presented with stickers, a campaign magazine and even a book outlining Prabowo's various policies, I thought I'd float a few questions.

"Is Mega a CGI hologram?"
"No, no Mister!"
"Well, has she ever been here?"
" Mister, she's very busy on the campaign trail."
"Hmmm. Interesting. So you've never seen her in the flesh as such?"
“No. But please Mister, have a free glass of Aqua!"
“Most kind, so what would you say to allegations leveled at Prabowo, namely that he was involved in the kidnapping of student activists a decade ago?"
"That's just a political smear I think. Nothing was ever proved. I believe that Prabowo will help Indonesia's poorest citizens."

Inevitably, however, my political probing was diverted onto other matters.
"You’re English Mr. yes?"
"Yes, indeed."
"You know David Beckham?"
"Erm... I'm aware of his work."
Yes, the 'Hello Mister' wall had gone up and serious debate was now off the agenda down at the Mega Pro Media Centre. After a few matey photos, I bid farewell to the staff, saddled up my trusty mountain bicycle and headed off into the sunset of a bright new Indonesian future.

Later, leafing through my free copy of Prabowo's Tani Merdeka magazine, with its pictures of noble farmers in the fields and attacks on laissez-faire, neoliberal capitalism (one of the buzzwords of this election) I couldn't help marveling at our man’s audacious political rebirth. Prabowo, 1.7 trillion rupiah in the bank, accused of blazing a trail of destruction from East Timor all the way to Jakarta and formally banned from entering the US, has reinvented himself as Indonesia's very own Mahatma Gandhi: agrarian champion and friend of the great unwashed.

There's even a cartoon for children stapled into the magazine’s centre, a short morality skit on the evils of money politics entering a student election. Despite offering his fellow students bribes of baso and mie ayam, the Eric Cartman-esque Tambun loses the cartoon class election to young Boni. A laudable lesson indeed, although how the huge amounts of money that Prabowo's pumping into his credulity stretching campaign squares with this cautionary tale I don't know. And now a word from our sponsors.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Heidi High

Recently, I had the pleasure of ascending Gunung Gede, one of Indonesia's many still smoking volcanoes, with a group of sunny masochists called Java Lava. Gede lies up near Puncak and can be reached via the beautiful botanical gardens at Cibodas.

Around 30 of us palefaces were embarking on a three day hike, accompanied by an almost equal number of local porters. These tree trunk legged mountain warriors had the unenviable task of heaving our huge backpacks up the mountain along with their own gear, leaving us Lillywhite bules unencumbered. Our Javanese Sherpas loaded themselves up like pack mules in some kind of symbolic re-enactment of the colonial yoke and set off at a cracking pace.

Several young children from the city's various international schools were also making the ascent and inevitably proved more up to the task than the adults. These fresh limbed, light bodied youngsters were able to easily win the battle against the unremitting cruelty of gravity and quickly scaled the summit before bounding halfway back down again to regale their huffing and puffing parents.

Fuelled only by a diet of Cadbury's chocolate and vitamin packed cigarettes, I made it to our first campsite just as dusk was falling. The site was set into the stunning forest on the side of the mountain, just above some steaming hot springs. Turning my attention from the beautiful scenery to more pedestrian matters, I pitched my tent, a pathetically flimsy one-man job that I covered with a huge, waterproof plastic sheet of the kind used in roadside food stalls. I'd bought this lifesaving piece of plastic down the market the week before for a mere Rp.30,000.

After my tent had endured the derision of some of the hardier, hiking boot and moustache clad members of the group, I cooked myself a gourmet dinner of instant noodles and tinned tuna. I then turned in for a night of secret gin sculling my sleeping bag. I had the last laugh however when my trusty plastic sheet ensured that I emerged unscathed from the night's shower whilst their fancy Eiger tents leaked like barges.

After another appetizing meal of chemical saturated noodles and chocolate, we broke camp and made for the summit of Gede. Eventually the forest opened out onto the 3000 plus metre peak of the volcano. After sloping off and discreetly parking my breakfast behind a tree (and wishing I'd bought more fresh underwear with me) I joined the others on the summit in brilliant sunshine and stared down a sheer cliff face into the spectacular smoking crater.

Several hundred photos later we descended the few hundred metres to our second campsite. Now ascending and descending clearly exact different tolls on the human frame. Ascending will get you breathing heavily and sweating like a Bluebird driver with a broken AC of course. Descending has its own quite literal pitfalls however and the constant jarring on the old legs turns them to jelly in no time at all. It was only thanks to a couple more vitamin C and electrolyte filled lung rockets that I was able to make it down in one piece.

The second campsite was a wonderfully untouched and enormous grass meadow situated in the original larger crater of the volcano. The meadow was flanked on both sides by steep forest covered peaks. Alas, one of the porters, the rookie of the bunch, had failed to make it with one of the whitey's gear, proving that nurture rather than nature is the making of a sturdy sherpa. The sun set in a riot of red, plunging us into the sort of almost freezing temperatures that necessitate the building of a nice, big campfire. You can't beat a jolly good burn up and the kids, no doubt spurred on by that weird preadolescent desire to set fire to everything, were in their element.

Sunrise the following morning was magnificent. The sun burst over the peaks, half blinding us as its rays refracted off the dew soaked grass. This was the stuff of life. All of nature is surely unquestionably beautiful. Only man makes ugliness. I sat and watched feeling as close to spiritual as my grizzled old atheistic weltanschauung would permit and gave thanks that I hadn't decided to spend the weekend in a shopping mall. It felt good to be about as far away from modern life as I could get, unencumbered by the ideological rubble of the new century and freed from the blank, joyless positivity of the PR speak that now saturates our every waking moment and the crushingly depressing effect that it engenders in me.

Then came the payoff. After another stomach turning breakfast of instant noodles and tinned curried squid (I must have had some kind of blackout down at Hero) it was time for the 8 km extreme downhill trudge back to reality. Towards the end, the old legs were starting to pack in and almost gave way a couple of times. No man, or mountain, has put me down yet though and I managed to drag my wounded carcass across the finish line in time to see the still sprightly kids enjoying a game of Frisbee and asking where we had been all this time. It was only the special ire reserved for child killers in jail, plus my now near paraplegic condition, that restrained me at that point. Mind you, the whole trip had been a stroll in the park compared with the subsequent drive back to Jakarta through 37 km of gridlocked Puncak.

Java Lava? These people are evil destroyers of men, however if you are interested in joining one of the group’s many expeditions, then take a look at their website.

Monday, June 15, 2009

All of our operators are busy at the moment...

Been too busy climbing a mountain this weekend to post the usual bilge but I'll be back next week with an interesting post a mountain. Here's a wee taster:

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Jakarta Without Us

Browsing through the racks down at the charming Aksara bookshop recently I chanced upon a couple of interesting items. My first purchase was a handsome foldout Green Map of Jakarta which indicated some of the city's more supine places of interest and greenery. Places that take one away from the ceaseless roar of two-stroke engines and the unrelenting din of commerce. Alas, the only sizeable green areas on the map are Ragunan's large but otherwise rather drab and dilapidated zoo and the pubic topiary that surrounds Sukarno's great erection (i.e. the Monas park).

Other listed areas of greenness are almost laughable in their diminutive footprints. Menteng's Taman Suropati, for example, is often promoted as a city park whilst it in fact more closely resembles a traffic island in size. In fact let's be honest, it is a traffic island. The woeful lack of green spaces in Jakarta has been well documented of course and is brought into even sharper relief when one contrasts our megalopolitan warren of concrete rat runs with the stunning rural beauty to be found elsewhere in the Archipelago.

My second bookshop purchase however afforded me the opportunity to drift off into a reverie of a rather greener Jakarta, albeit a Jakarta without any actual people in it. The World Without Us by Alan Weisman is a bold thought experiment that looks scientifically at what would happen to the planet and its great cities and feats of human engineering if the entire population of the world was suddenly removed from the equation, never to return. Resembling a more analytical, non-fiction version of one of recently deceased prophet of the future JG Ballard's early disaster novels (such as The Drowned World), The World Without Us is food for thought indeed.

I thought that I'd draw on the book this week and try and paint a picture of what would happen to the Indonesian capital over the years and millennia if its 15 million residents were to be suddenly abducted by a presumably extremely large spaceship.

Firstly, Jakarta's houses and residencies would unravel themselves after just a few short years. Indonesian housing is often of a poor quality with many seemingly being built out of breakfast cereal instead of bricks, and this would hasten its ultimate doom in the absence of any human intervention. In Indonesia's humid climate, spores would quickly penetrate the city's houses, turning hardboard to paper, rotting studs and floor joists and generally munching them to bits. Ants, roaches and even small mammals such as Jakarta's huge army of rats would soon move in and complete the job.

Moisture and rainwater would enter roofing panels around the nails, loosening their grip. Eventually, gravity will do its work, joists will cave in to the pressure and the city's roofs will collapse. An Indonesian house would probably last 20 or 30 years tops with no people around to look after it. Only bathroom tiles, the chemical property of their fired ceramic not unlike those of fossils, would remain relatively unchanged.

Meanwhile, as buildings crash down, lime from crushed concrete will raise soil pH, inviting in trees and re-greening Jakarta in a way that will make it even Ragunan Zoo look like chicken feed. The city's open sewers would jam up with plastic and other human detritus (as they pretty much do anyway now I come to think of it). Jakarta's depleted groundwater will also rise again and thus soil will be sluiced away and roads will crater.

A global warming sea level rise of an inch per decade combined with the fact that Jakarta's marshy coast is sinking (the airport toll road has allegedly sunk by over 2 meters since 1980) will ensure that most of the north of the city ends up in a watery grave. In fact 20% of Indonesia's 17,000 odd islands are set to disappear by 2050. On the other hand, the city's denuded and decimated mangroves would reappear and re-green the new coastline, wherever it ends up being.

As for Jakarta's best known icon, the previously mentioned Monas, the destabilizing ground will see even this hubristic testament to one man's pride topple and its 35 kg of lustrous golden flame become cratered before eventually disappearing. In fact, fast forwarding tens of thousands of years after our imaginary spaceship incident, the only remaining testament left to the urban sprawl that was once Jakarta will probably be the man-made, and as yet un-biodegradable, complex polymer plastics that humanity has churned out around one billion tons of since World War II.

Maybe 100,000 years hence, microbes will have evolved the enzymes needed to break down our plastic gift to the planet but until then, those Blackberry casings, Hero shopping bags and even the pen that I'm now writing this with will be the longest surviving human artifacts and the only things that remain to indicate a human presence when all other vestiges of our lives in the Indonesian capital have long since been blown to the four winds.

In this apocalyptic context, the recent Situ Gintung dam burst disaster is a metaphorically perfect embodiment of our precarious position here on this swampy floodplain. Scary stuff I know but still, look on the bright side, at least will get to go on a spaceship.