Saturday, August 29, 2009

Nil by Mouth

Well, it's time for Muslims the world over to forsake food, water and making the beast with two backs during the hours of daylight, which can often seem an arduous task. Islam claims to be a universal religion of course although any Muslims who happen to live in Svalbard in Norway, Europe's northernmost inhabited region, could be in for some Ramadhan problems over the next few years seeing as the sun there doesn't set at all between April 19th and August 23rd. That's a question for the theologians to address though as they struggle with their holy texts whilst trying to prevent their Arctic Circle flock from turning to skeletons.

Closer to home, Ramadan in Jakarta is perhaps not the oasis of peace and reflection that it is meant to be. It's an oft repeated fact that more food is consumed in Indonesia during the fasting month than at any other time of year. It's pretty much all out warfare on the roads and in supermarket checkout queues during the holy month and shopping Plaza food courts resemble refugee camps come 6:30 p.m. every evening. In fact, the whole deal is pretty much as commercialised as Christmas has become in the West.

The current religious zeitgeist is up against the relentless forces of capitalist realism and our advanced technologies that increasingly seem more likely to unplug us than the reverse. Thus a defensive, knee jerk, anti-intellectual fundamentalism seems to be the order of the day. Over in America, the whole Jesus Inc. project is clearly a few loaves and fishes short of a full picnic, whilst in the Islamic world, the great scholarly traditions that enabled the West to fully reclaim its Platonic and Aristotelian philosophical canon when the Dark Ages abated, have been succeeded by authoritarianism. Edicts, rules and fatwas are now in the ascendancy and are coming to replace the long debate in the Muslim world. This week's top story, for example, concerns the Malaysian model who has had a caning for drinking beer delayed until after the Idul Fitri holiday. Well that's something for her to look forward to then isn’t it? I'm betting that when her mates said to her, "Let's go out and have a few beers and get really caned tonight," she didn't have this outcome in mind. It gives new meaning to the phrase, "Going out on the lash," doesn’t it?

Back to the fasting though, I thought that I'd give it a go for a day in the name of transcultural understanding. I guess any proper writer worth his salt looking to cover the fast would do the whole month but not me. There's just no way, I’m sorry. Shall we leave it at that?

Many fasting Muslims that I have met over the years claim that laying off the fried rice and baso during the day is a healthy thing to do. Medical science does indeed advocate the fast every now and then however one should apparently drink plenty of water when one lays off the solid food. This will enable the body to shift from digestion mode to toxin elimination mode. Thus the Muslim fast isn't necessarily that healthy, although a good Muslim doesn't fast for health reasons of course.

Anyway, I woke up at 4 a.m. after a night of prayer and contemplation down at one of the city's less salubrious watering holes and staggered downstairs for a fry up. I'm guessing that bacon and eggs are not high on the list of pre-fast foods recommended by the clerics but this was to be a strictly physiological experiment and so I fried up the old babi anyway. A few slices of toast also went down as well along with as much Aqua as I could drink before I returned to bed for a couple of hours more sleep (is this cheating? I'm guessing that this is a common procedure for many Indonesian Muslims).

After reaching the office at about nine, I ploughed into a hard day's square eyed computer bashing. At around midday, the time when I usually nip out for a slap up Padang feed and a few Teh Botols, I started to feel my first pangs. I was peckish for sure but not eating for a day is easy. It's the not drinking that gets you. The dry thirst got increasingly uncomfortable as the day wore on. How these construction workers do it in the hot sun is beyond me but it can be no surprise that general productivity in the country takes a nosedive during the holy month.

By late afternoon I was starting to feel decidedly unwell and slightly dizzy. I had a vision of 72 virgins descending from the heavens and encouraging me to pop down to the mini-mart for a bottle of Pocari Sweat. "Away foul temptresses," I yelled, drawing bemused looks from my co-workers and sent out a prayer to the Almighty. After apologising for not actually believing in him, I implored him to pull me back from the brink of imminent renal failure.

Come six o'clock, I had a throbbing headache and that first glass of water tasted like that first beer must do to someone who's just done a ten stretch. I don't know how they do it every day. I'll be coming to you live from Svalbard next year.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Rum, Sodomy & the Lash

Sukarno be praised, Independence Day fell fortuitously on a Monday this time around affording us white to off white collar types the opportunity to slip town for three days. I packed up my tent, swimming trunks, a bottle of Jim Beam, some sunblock and a roll of toilet paper and stepped outside the house at 4:30 a.m. on Saturday morning. The local mosques were trying to insinuate their distorted, mid-frequency, PA system blare into my half conscious infidel brain and were succeeding admirably. 4:30 a.m. is surely an ungodly time of day to be up and about. I have my suspicions that the Almighty actually said that everyone had to be up by 4:30 p.m. and was misquoted.

After meeting my posse at McDonald's Sarinah and forcing down one of their healthy meat sandwiches and a portion of cardboard french fries in a vain attempt to inject a bit of life into the old frame, we headed up to the North Jakartan port of Muara Angke in order to make best our escape by sea.

Muara Angke, it should be explained, is one of North Jakarta's most virulent horrors. The very smell of the place, a pungent blend of sea water and raw sewage, was almost enough to cause my burger to come trampolining straight back out again (and they are never that easy to keep down at the best of times I've noticed, especially at that time of morning, although that's usually because I've just drunk my weight in Bintang). It's probably a blessing in disguise that global warming looks set to submerge irredeemably scum infested slums such as Muara Angke in a watery grave.

As we made our way quayside, the piquant smell of a million Jakarta toilet flushings were joined in the mix by mountains of trash and a layer of diesel fuel on the water, refracting the sunlight that fell on it as if in a vain attempt to distract attention away from this vision of hyper industrial squalor.

They do actually sell seafood at Muara Angke in fact however now was not the time. Instead I popped into a Minimart and bought some water for the trip. The girl behind the counter gave me part of my change in the form of candies. You know, I've often considered trying to pay for stuff in these shops with candy as well but my betting is that they would not be best pleased.

Anyway, we quickly hopped onto a public boat and prayed for a rapid departure. Alas though, we were forced to wait another half an hour until the boat was rammed to about four times its legal maximum capacity. They do this on the buses too of course however the consequences are usually less serious when the bus gets a puncture, especially considering the fact that most Indonesians can't actually swim.

You can't complain though at Rp.30,000 for a two and a half hour trip in this day and age and we were soon skimming across the Jakarta sludge in search of clearer waters. Once you pass the first of Jakarta's Pulau Seribu (Thousand Islands) things do indeed start to clear. In fact, a Thousand Islands boat trip is seemingly as much a journey in time as it is in space as one travels from 21st-century overload teetering on the verge of collapse to a primordial, coral fringed Eden (although most of the actual coral itself hasn't gone the distance it has to be said).

There may not really be a thousand islands in this mini Archipelago but there are hundreds, apparently, and a few days skimming through the chain can be the most fun you've ever had in Indonesia outside of hiding behind the curtains and pretending to be a ghost when the maid comes in.

I've written about the Pulau Seribu before, it has to be said. This time around, however, the Independence Day celebrations taking place on one of the larger, more populated islands, Pulau Pramuka, proved to be quite interesting. Out on the waterfront, various uniformed officials were sweating buckets as their outsized epaulettes wilted in the sizzling temperatures. According to some of the rubbernecking locals around the edges of the event, Mr. 'Vote for me, I've got a moustache' himself, namely Jakarta's governor, Fauzi Bowo, was due to put in an appearance, although probably that was just a rumour that had been put about. I'm not sure he gets out to these pretty neglected islands much. Possibly he was busy with Jakarta's Independence Day celebrations, being sponsored to have his moustache dyed white and red in attempt to raise money for more busway buses. Something along those lines anyway.

He missed a treat though. Convoys of decorated floats traditionally parade around Jakarta's streets on 'Hari Merdeka' however out in the islands we were treated to a veritable flotilla of boats sailing round and round in circles in front of the marina. The bluff old sea dogs piloting these crates had clearly spent some serious time and effort decorating their boats and I managed to snap some jolly amusing photographs. One small tug had a six-foot tall version of Monas erected on its foredeck whilst another had been decked out to resemble a rather lopsided shark. Other Independence Day treats included a mockup of a navy gunboat and, my favourite of all, a boat kitted out to resemble an enormous turtle, complete with a string operated, opening and shutting mouth that jutted from the vessel's prow. You wouldn't have had turtle boats under the Dutch, no siree Bob.

So let's raise a glass to 64 years of relentless innovation and progress that have catapulted Indonesia to the forefront of global affairs and prosperity. Merdeka!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Gwapple Me Gwapenuts

I've traipsed my sorry backside around several trade fairs and expos over the years that I've been churning out this risibly ill informed landfill of a column. Last week though I chanced upon a trade show with a pleasant difference up at Lapangan Banteng, a small park (and aren't they all in Jakarta) that sits just behind the Istiqlal mosque near the National Monument. The Flora and Fauna show featured stall after stall of plants, gardening equipment and pets and made for a charming change from the consumer durables on sale at Jakarta Fair's consumer capitalist gang bang.

Despite being English, I'm not particularly green fingered I must say and wouldn't really know how to create a country garden from a hole in the ground. I am led to believe though that there has been a veritable gardening revolution among Britain's youth in recent years. Gardens have flourished in wardrobes the length and breadth of the UK as grown your own aficionados tend to their medicinal buds, away from their neighbors' prying eyes.

With this in mind, I wondered among the various plant stalls in search of one of those special ultraviolet lights that are used for growing stuff in the dark but alas to no avail.
"Are you wanting to grow herbs Mr?"
"Erm... in a sense yes, yes that's pretty much the strength of it."
There were plenty of other blooms and hardy perennials to enjoy as I strolled around the show though and I soon forgot all about Project Marley.

My first stop was at a stall selling plants that it claimed were, "Tanaman Pengusir Nyamuk" i.e. plants that drive away mosquitoes. Apparently the odor from certain plant and tree species, such as eucalyptus, puts those pesky skeeters off their vampiric blood feasts. It's also possible to put Listerine mouthwash into a sprayer bottle and squirt it around the garden apparently. You live and learn.

Elsewhere in the show, the beauty and elegance of Darwinian natural selection trumped the man-made items on display hands down. There were some truly gorgeous orchids and roses and some tempting young fruit saplings, as well as a whole load of attractive bonsai trees. On the man-made side though, some of the mass produced statuettes and water features were more than a trifle cheesy and tasteless. It's been said that evolution produces a powerful illusion of good design; well it certainly produces designs that are better than some bloke cementing a water spray nozzle into the mouth of a concrete frog.

Elsewhere in the flora section there were the inevitable hokum herbal remedies claiming to cure everything from backache to terminal cancer. My favorite find here were some herbal eye drops which I conjectured could either induce some LSD type visual hallucinations or turn you into the next Stevie Wonder. It was time to move on.

Towards the rear of the show lay the fauna section. Naturally, the kids were drawn to this part of the park above all others and seemed to especially love engaging in the time-honored Indonesian tradition of tormenting poor animals by poking at a group of caged dogs with sticks. Fluffy white rabbits, fish and terrapins were all available to purchase while the marmosets and a pair of sorry-looking caged tigers most definitely were not.

As family groups crowded dangerously into the packed animal tents, I had a vision of some minor accident setting off a chain of events that would result in the poor creatures escaping out of the park and into the city. All it would take would be for corpulent ibu to slip on a discarded ice cream and crash into the snake cages, bringing them down onto the floor. One of the reptiles would inevitably escape and make its way up an unfortunate bapak's trouser leg, causing him to panic and trip. He would then face plant into the tiger cage, awaking them from their slumbers and causing them to claw furiously at his nostrils and bum fluff moustache. He would then inadvertently pull the cage door open in his desire to escape and the beasts would flee their prison and head out into the park, hunting down every defenseless bunny rabbit and child under the age of two that lay in their path. Meanwhile the marmosets would become overexcited and start lobbing fecal grenades at the hysterical throng. I beat a hasty retreat and headed back into the less hectic flora section of the show.

I reflected on how commendable this oasis of green fingered eco-urban power was, despite the irony of the mounds of plastic trash that were piling up everywhere around me. I read recently that much of the world's plastic waste finds its way down waterways into the sea where it is carried by prevailing currents to an area called the North Pacific Gyre. This recently discovered sea of plastic is now about half the size of Europe and growing rapidly.'s evidently going to take rather more than a few window boxes full of geraniums to reverse our planetary nest soiling but you’ve got to start somewhere I suppose. Daffodils all round then.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

All the Fun of the Fur

It being the holiday season and all, I was last week begrudgingly de-manacled from my office workstation and allowed to stumble blinkingly into the daylight for a week. After a few days of rest and relaxation on the beautiful island retreat of Lembeh, just off the north coast of Sulawesi, I headed back through Manado and up to the cooler temperatures of the hill town of Tomohon. A friend of mine has rented a shack up on the hills there in order to escape from the rat race for a few months. He hasn't quite managed to break free from the nefarious influence of rodents however but more on that later.

Tomohon itself is a rugged and scenic area and the small town centre sports a very high concentration of Catholic churches, reflecting the majority religion in the region. Maybe the men behind those mysterious smoke signals that emanate from the Vatican's chimneys whenever there is a change of pontiff should consider a member of the Tomohon clergy for the top job next time around. Another Obama moment would no doubt to the country the power of good.

Not being a Muslim area, Tomohon is also a pork lover’s dream. Cocking a snook at the H1N1 swine flu virus, I tucked into a veritable hog fest of pork satay during my trip. Bogor's governor, a man who recently banned all pigs from his city, would be at best nonplussed if he ever ventured up here.

Scoffing down mountains of swine is thirsty work however and my companion and I were soon hankering after a few shots of the old falling down water. The local supermarket did indeed stock a few bottles of imported spirits, however at over Rp.600,000 a pop, the hard stuff on offer was about four times the price of the same products in the various Jakarta duty-free shops that I frequent with worrying regularity. Admittedly, the supermarket in question also stocked a full range of the local, semi-distilled industrial solvents known as Mansion House spirits, which were undeniably a lot cheaper but one simply has to draw the line somewhere. The bottle of Mansion House Crème de Menthe on display looked particularly distressing, like some noxious mix of Sunlight washing-up liquid and a half kilogram bag of sugar.

No matter though because my companion, through extensive research and interrogation of dodgy food stall owners, had located an original source of Cap Tikus (Rat Brand), a local spirit brewed up in the jungles of North Sulawesi. We set off with empty bottles at the ready in order to replenish his supplies of this potent brew.
Cap Tikus is in fact the local Minahasan name for palm wine or palm toddy, a drink that is produced in jungles all over the world by tapping the naturally slightly alcoholic sap of the Saguer palm tree and distilling it in order to up its strength to a reassuring 40% or so.

After a brisk walk into the depths of one of Tomohon's native forests, we alighted on the Cap Tikus operation. A network of bamboo pipes ran from trees into a central hut containing various metal pots and a fire pit. It was like some tropical version of a Prohibition era moonshine still. The very friendly man in charge of operations filled our bottles for a recession busting Rp.6000 each and offered us a wee dram for the road. After decanting the brew from an old plastic flagon of Pertamina engine oil into some coconut shells we supped on the milk of paradise. Cap Tikus has a slightly eggy taste to be sure but proved to be eminently quaffable when we topped the stuff up with Sprite back at the house later.

I’m getting a trifle ahead of myself here though because our host also offered us something to eat when his partner in moonshine returned from a hunting mission into the jungle. An air rifle was slung over his shoulder and he held aloft a pack of dead rats with sticks shoved up their posteriors. "I've just caught these," he confided, grinning from ear to ear.
"Fancy a rat Mister?"
Oblivious to our hesitation, he selected one of the whole rodent satay sticks and plunged it into the fire, burning off its fur and barbecuing the wee chap until well blackened. Not wishing to appear rude (although I'm sure that the vast majority of Indonesians would think twice before chowing down on a chargrilled rat) we gingerly nibbled at a couple of the formerly furry critters. What the hell ay? You're either a vegetarian or you're not in my view. All other considerations boil down to either squeamishness or biodiversity and I doubt that rats are on the endangered list. In the event, and in line with the old cliché, the stuff tasted like chicken.

On our way home we were passed by our budding Anthony Bourdain: stripped to the waist, riding a scooter, four-year-old son perched between his knees, air rifle slung over his shoulder, Happy Mondays baseball hat stuck on his head and a bag of rats hanging off his handlebars. Alas I missed the photo opportunity. Further on down the road we came across a man blow torching a dog. When in Rome...

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Coz I'm a Voodoo Chilli

Fundamentalist Islam has, rather tediously, rarely been out of the news headlines over the last decade or so. Alas all these Islamists have at their disposal in order to leverage column inches and air time in the great battle for the world’s five minute attention span currently raging between Allah, David Beckham and Paris Hilton, is violence. Blowing people up or going all shouty and purple in the face is pretty much the only card that these people have to play on the world stage.

It should be remembered however that Indonesia, despite the best efforts of the beard and robe brigade (who increasingly seem to have a whiff of the lynch mob about them) remains a veritable witch’s brew of animist, infidel beliefs and strange superstitions. Many never seem to get beyond the local equivalent of the Santa Claus and tooth fairy stage and live their lives in an arrested development thrall to all manner of ghouls, ghosts, mythical beasties and legends. Such beliefs and superstitions can seem a trifle medieval to those beholden to the scientific enlightenment and eerily reminiscent of something from Monty Python’s ‘Holy Grail’:
Sir Bedevere: “…and that, my liege, is how we know the Earth to be banana shaped.”
King Arthur: “This new learning amazes me, Sir Bedevere. Explain again how sheep’s bladders may be employed to prevent earthquakes.”

Such beliefs are not perhaps essentially much different from having an imaginary friend up there in the sky however maybe I shouldn’t pursue this line of argument too doggedly this week lest some suicide bomber disguises himself as the aqua delivery man and takes Metro Madness Towers out with him (a couple of fire crackers would probably do for the old place in fact).

For those who live on or near Java’s south coast, a belief in the Queen of the South Seas, Nyai Loro Kidul, is common. This Javanese mermaid goddess, unlike good old Santa, is alleged to be quite malevolent and to frequently drag swimmers and divers down to a watery grave in Davy Jones’ locker. Famed for her beauty though, this is one goddess I wouldn’t mind coming down my chimney as it were. Apparently, Kidul is angered by the color green and thus one should under no circumstances wear green when going for a swim. Green is also the color of Islam of course but I’ll leave you to pick the psychoanalytic bones out of that one. Down at the popular resort of Pelabuhan Ratu, April 6th is celebrated in Nyai Loro Kidul’s honor and is a memorial day for those who have lost their loved ones at sea.

Volcanoes are another great source of danger and thus superstition. Central Java’s Gunung Merapi, for example, is believed to have a king living inside it and locals proffer gifts to calm him down when the crater is active. Food, live animals, money and, ironically, cigarettes are all tossed into Merapi despite the protestations of vulcanologists who insist that people really shouldn’t be up there when the thing’s about to blow.

A belief in Dukun, the shamans or witch doctors who magically manage to part credulous fools from their hard earned rice vouchers, is prevalent all over the country. Your average Dukun’s ability to eke out a living from the gullibility of the general populace involves such charming procedures as rubbing excrement or semen on their clients or chanting incantations over glasses of water. Whether people are actually made richer or more attractive by these bizarre procedures is anyone’s guess. Personally I would be inclined not to go for a meeting with my bank manager or on a date whilst smeared in human excreta or man paste but hey, I’m no expert on the dark arts. I mean even Indonesian presidents have employed the services of these charlatans, proving just how deeply a belief in such quasi mystical hokum is ingrained in Indonesian society.

Other local superstitions, whilst not necessarily anymore risible than their Western equivalents, seem to be so numerous as make one dizzy just to read them. Some of my favorites include: ‘An unmarried woman should avoid washing her hair on a Saturday as this would cause her to marry a man who is difficult to please.’ This one would at least seem to have some tenuous relationship to reality as a man who could put up with his paramour’s reeking locks on a Saturday night date is clearly not too fussy. Another interesting superstition that I found during my extensive research of the topic is: ‘If you come across a piece of chili lying in a pan for no apparent reason, this is a sign that a disaster is about to occur.’ This would no doubt explain the endless series of Tsunamis, landslides, earthquakes, dam bursts and volcanic eruptions that continue to bedevil the archipelago, I mean there must be an unattended pan full of chili on every street. On a rather different tack, the advice to, ‘Avoid looking at the sexual organs of your spouse during intercourse as this will result in bad luck for a week,’ seems a little puritanical, not to mention impractical, unless one goes down the Victorian route of wearing especially designed bodysuits with flaps for the aforementioned offensive organs. Whatever happened to ‘Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight’?