Saturday, September 26, 2009

Keepin' My Powder Dry

As not much goes on in Indonesia (Bali excepted perhaps) during the Islamic holiday, I thought that I’d skip the country and engage in a little ASEAN flavour this Lebaran. I apologize in advance if this week’s column makes Globe readers feel as cheated as Indonesians rightfully do when their local leaders jet off on global junkets under the guise of “comparative studies”. This week’s Metro Muppet may not result in such an audaciously brilliant scheme as the TransJakarta Busway but at least I’m not using government money to finance my vacation.

AirAsia has, in fact, just opened a direct flight between Jakarta and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and so I thought I’d give it a go this Lebaran. After applying for a Vietnamese visa online ($US25) I soon found myself on an AirAsia flying cattle truck bound for Saigon.

The first thing to report is that Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat airport is a touch swankier than Sukarno Hatta. Alas, when I reached the immigration desk, I was held up by a hapless bule who’d been on my flight with his Indonesian girlfriend. He was pleading to be let into the country. “But my girlfriend said that I don’t need a visa!” He begged. Wrong. She doesn’t. You do mate. There’s no visa on arrival facility in Vietnam as there is in Jakarta and so he was ordered to take the next flight back to the Big Durian. In the parlance of the intraweb: holiday fail.

Outside, the cab drivers proved to be every bit as venal as their Sukarno Hatta counterparts and a couple of them tried to squeeze $US40 out of me for what should be a $US10, 20 minute ride into the centre of town. Bah. Handily enough the local currency, the dong (isn’t that an Indonesian word that doesn’t mean anything?) is worth almost exactly half as much as the rupiah is, which makes the old mental arithmetic easy for the mathematically challenged (and how often have I been in Jakarta whilst a pea brained shop assistant fires up a calculator in order to add Rp.2000 and Rp.3000 together?).

Downtown Ho Chi Saigon Minh is, quite frankly, a traffic Hades. The city is famed for its motorcycle chaos and I can attest to the veracity of these claims. If you thought Jakarta was out of control wait until you see Saigon’s motor madness. They also drive on the other side of the road, a fact that almost saw me smeared across the asphalt on a couple of occasions after a few cans of refreshing 333 lager.

The city centre is every bit as densely populated as Jakarta and a never ending human scrum swarms everywhere. There are beggars, of course, and on several occasions small kids approached me with brushes and offered to polish my blue and white sneakers a handsome shade of black, just as they do in Jakarta. Prices are generally cheaper than they are in the Indonesian capital although gasoline is more expensive. The city seemed cleaner and more pleasant though, as did Can Tho, another town that I visited in the Mekong Delta, confirming my prejudices about Indonesians’ lack of civic pride.

Street food is just as ubiquitous as it is in good old Batavia although it is perhaps slightly heavier on the swine than Indonesia’s new halal warriors would prefer. The markets are just as sweaty and colorful, the climate is just as humid and the same artfully crumbling colonial architecture can still be spotted amid the gleaming new facades. Most importantly, the general population is every bit as friendly to whitey as they are back home, despite the country’s history. Jakarta is ahead in terms of posh malls and swanky bars and restaurants but drinking cocktails at over Rp.100,000 a pop in Jakarta is proving less appealing than ever these days.

There’s plenty to do in the city if you fancy availing yourself of the new AirAsia deal. The presidential palace, which doubled as an allied nerve centre during the war, is fascinating and contains some excellent photographs of the hostilities, including the moment when commie tanks came bursting in through the palace gates in 1975.

In a sense, Vietnam’s recent history is a mirror image of Indonesia’s, specifically one that ended in communist victory rather than defeat. Obviously the big ideological conflicts in both countries resulted in colossal amounts of bloodshed, however the X factor for Vietnam was clearly its war with America. Despite the awful carnage of 1966 (the famous ‘Year of Living Dangerously’), Indonesia was at least spared a legacy of landmines and Agent Orange. America’s truly evil dioxin based defoliants are still claiming victims today in the form of tragic and quite horrifying birth defects, many of which are documented in harrowing detail in Saigon’s War Remnants Museum.

So that’s yet another column concluded on an upbeat note. Let’s not dwell on the horrors of war though chaps. All in all, I had a great break and I’d thoroughly recommend bagging the flight over to ‘Nam if you’re in possession of an NPWP fiscal avoidance tax card. Sorry Bali.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

That Piece of Halibut Was Good Enough for Jehovah

Well it hasn't been a particularly holy month around the world if you ask me. Pitch battles have been fought outside a mosque in my home town of Harrow in north-west London, between local Muslims and fascist goons. It's a sad mirror image of what Indonesian Muslim hardliners have often got up to outside churches here over the years.

Meanwhile, Acehnese lawmakers have passed a bill that could actually see Indonesian citizens being stoned to death. Clearly I've seen Monty Python's 'Life of Brian' too many times because images of warungs selling packets of gravel keep flashing through my mind. Acehnese philanderers (mainly women no doubt) can now look forward to the full terminal rock 'n' roll experience.

According to a Mr. Iskandar of the PKS party,"We have received much support to ratify the bill. We hope with the existence of the 'qanun jinayat' that there will be a clear mandate to enforce Islamic Sharia in Aceh." Mandate? Ratify? That’s a nice little 21st century media sound bite isn’t it? The use here of the dull and bureaucratic language of modern secular democracy could almost make one believe that they were talking about implementing new parking regulations or something. I'm sure getting stoned to death merits prose a little more purple than this.

Meanwhile, a friend of mine converted to Islam last week in order to marry his local girlfriend. Down at the mosque, the cleric on duty ran my acquaintance through a short checklist which aimed to clarify why Islam is better than all the other religions. Apparently, Islam is the true word of God whereas other faiths were invented by man. My friend was informed that Hinduism was named after a river (The Indus) which supposedly disqualifies it from the off. In addition Catholicism was purportedly invented by the Pope (erm...) and, my absolute favourite, Protestantism was apparently founded by, "Martin Luther, the King". "God Almighty," I exclaimed when I heard that. Another convert for the lord.

Onto more personal family news, I also learned this week that my lesbian cousin has been impregnated by a gay male friend (probably a turkey-baster job) so that she and her life partner, who enjoyed a civil marriage ceremony last September, can have a child. I wonder how my cousin's unusual family setup would get on in Aceh? The Sharia police would probably have the gravel out before they could get through the arrivals hall.

I, for my part, was in the mood for some slightly more moderate religion this week. With this goal in mind I popped along to the Istiqlal mosque for a bit of peace and quiet. Muslims like to ask God's forgiveness during the final 10 days of fasting and many break their fast at the city's mosques every evening and then join in with the evening prayers. Some even spend the night or even the whole month down at the mosque.

I arrived at about 10pm and the Istiqlal complex was still a hive of activity. Outside the gates, sellers were hawking Islamic headwear and prayer beads; religion is always a good money-spinner. People were also tucking into a veritable Matterhorn of rice as well, not only outside but inside the mosque itself. "They are just breaking their fasts," the security guard informed me. "What? Still? They've been scoffing for four solid hours have they?"

People were sprawled all over the main prayer hall, sleeping, reclining or actually praying. Rather than the insomnia that the blaring of my local mosque usually induces in me, the gentle mantras of the faithful, as they filled the Istiqlal's huge central hall, started to make me feel a bit drowsy too. This was the real opium of the masses, as opposed to the amphetamine rush of the pre-fast wake-up call that's been a flea in my ear all month. The Istiqlal would make a great place for a concert of ambient music.

My guide, clearly looking for a tip, took me around the impressive mosque and gave me the rundown. The Istiqlal was built by former strongman Suharto in 1978, no doubt to burnish his Islamic credentials and thus confirming the Marxist suspicion that religion serves the interests of power. (Sorry, I'll stop with the Karl references). The mosque cost Rp.7 billion to build at the time and the site covers 10 hectares. The mosque itself can hold an enormous 120,000 people during Idul Fitri celebrations. The interior is a mix of Italian marble, Saudi Arabian carpeting and German stainless steel and the main hall contains 5 separate levels, reflecting the 5 daily prayers that are obligatory for all Muslims. The minaret is exactly 6666 cm tall and looms over the mosque, as does the national monument, Monas.

I was also shown the huge three ton drum, made from one single 300 year old piece of Bornean wood, that is thrashed enthusiastically when it's time to break the fast. Tour over, I gave my guide a Rp.30,000 tip, left the faithful behind and headed down to another local house of God for a few glasses of holy water. Worship takes many forms my children.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

I Have Nothing to Declare Except My Own Genius

Last weekend I had no plans in particular but just knew that I had to get out of town. Saturday's life-threatening hangover proved to be an insurmountable object, however on Sunday it was all systems go for a drive down to Bogor. Jakarta’s grime and general human scrum, which can sometimes seem so vibrant and endlessly fascinating, can at others summon up the skulking black dog of depression.

Once, when he was on a tour of the United States, big shirted British aesthete Oscar Wilde was asked why he thought America, just out of its civil war, was such a violent country. His reply was simple, "I believe it's because your wallpaper is so ugly."

At first glance, this may seem like one of the more flippant, throw away aphorisms that big, butch Oscar ever came out with. Perhaps however, behind the apparent facetiousness of this remark lies a message of the utmost seriousness for those who, like Oscar, believe that an appreciation of beauty as manifested in life, culture and nature is one of our highest and noblest callings.

If you look out of the window at nature you can see nothing but beauty, except where man has intervened. All that Wilde meant is that if you belong to a species and come to believe that all it can do to the world is to uglify and despoil it, which perhaps we do, then that has a profound effect on the individual.

If you grow up in an ugly environment, full of mounds of plastic trash, clouds of noxious smog and monolithic expanses of grubby concrete, then you think ugly thoughts about yourself and indeed about the whole human race. There is nothing left for you to do but to crap in your own nest as it were. And crap in our own nests us Jakartans most surely do, by littering, polluting and being noisy, brash and generally vulgar in a manner that citizens from elsewhere in the Archipelago would perhaps find shocking.

Old Oscar's aesthetic view of the world was in fact a very profound one, one that forces us to think and consider life beyond the knee jerk morality of religious and political dogmas. You've got to think harder than that, Wilde would argue.

And so, in order to look for my own bit of thinking space, I escaped the virtual Purgatory of sit-on-my-Facebook and the big Jakarta stink for a few hours and hit the toll road. I soon found myself wandering through Bogor's famous Kebun Raya botanical gardens.

This handsome park takes up the city centre and is ringed by a million minivans. Inside however, all is peace and quiet. Kebun Raya is, as far as I know, the only place in Indonesia that resembles a spacious European or American city park. Jakarta would surely be a better place if the centre of town was turned into a similarly huge park. This may yet transpire, of course, if the whole Batavia project collapses within the next few decades.

I'm sure nearly all of you have been to Bogor's botanical gardens before as they are naturally one of Indonesia’s best known tourist sites. Kebun Raya is worth more than a single visit however and is perfect for a Sunday afternoon escape from Jakarta. I mean it only takes about half an hour to get there down the toll road, about the same time as it takes to reach the exit barrier in a Jakarta shopping mall these days.

After viewing the presidential palace and the deer that trot around its grounds, I headed into the park's interior and enjoyed the quiet sounds of nature, for once not drowned out by the sound of internal combustion engines. Eventually, I reached the rear of the park which opens out onto a lovely grassy slope, atop which sits the Cafe de Daunan, a great place in which to enjoy a cool, cleansing ale whilst the sun goes down.

Alas, when I arrived, I was told that the beer was, "kosong"(sold out). Horror of horrors! Now admittedly, "kosong" can mean any number of things in this country, covering a broad spectrum all the way from, "We've never sold that ever," to, "Well actually, there is some somewhere out back but I simply can't be arsed to go and get it."

I had my suspicions that the beer supply had in fact been reduced to nix on account of prevailing religious sensibilities. Bogor, after all, recently declared itself a completely 'halal' city in a rather dispiriting display of crypto-Sharia totalitarianism. Upon enquiring however I was told by the waitress that the cafe had had its beer completely cleaned out by a party of bibulous bules the previous day. Typical. Thumbs up Bogor though, all is forgiven.

So get yourself down to Bogor with all due haste but remember to bring your own pig’s ear (it’s Cockney rhyming slang, although, come to think of it I guess pig’s ear would also be off the menu in Bogor). We’ll leave the last word to Oscar for this week though, a message for all Indonesians in light of the current smash Malaysia fun: “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.”

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Can You Hear the Malaysia Sing? Noooooo!

The great Indonesia versus Malaysia spat, a popular political debate with all the subtlety of two sets of rival football supporters throwing beer cans full of urine at each other, has taken a new twist this week. Our new information technologies, proving as usual to be a double edged sword, have enabled Indonesian computer hackers to run riot over Malaysian websites during the country's Independence Day celebrations.

These cyber attacks were supposedly in retaliation for Malaysia's alleged theft of the Balinese Pendet dance, which the country's tourist board used in a promotion. Other recent bones of contention include the fugitive Malaysian terrorist Noordin Top, the alleged theft of the Sipadan and Ligitan islands and the abuse of migrant workers.

Apparently, even universities in Central Java have now joined the fray by refusing to allow Malaysian students to matriculate. One would perhaps expect a more enlightened attitude from the Academy. Meanwhile, over on Metro TV, a series of Ganyang Malaysia (Smash Malaysia) pseudo-documentaries seem wholly designed to inflame jingoistic tensions even further. Yes, it's back to the good old days of the early 60s when Sukarno's 'Konfrontasi' with Malaysia, ostensibly over the future of Borneo, brought the two nations to blows.

Sociobiologists talk of pseudo-kinship (the idea that everyone of your race are all your brothers and sisters) and its flipside, pseudo-speciation (the notion that, "They're just not like us over there, in fact they are barely human at all"). Humans can easily be manipulated by their cultures and political leaders into such 'us and them' attitudes. In fact, in a huge number of cultures on the planet, the word for people is exactly the same as the word for their own tribe.

In order to show some solidarity with this mindless strain of knee-jerk nationalism that festers in my adopted country though, I trotted down to the Jakarta Convention Centre last weekend in order to enjoy the Nusantara Batik Show. You can't get more Indonesian than batik and the good quality stuff is apparently in high demand around the world just at the moment (and is no doubt far superior to crappy Malaysian batik).

Indonesian bosoms were clearly swelling with nationalistic pride down at the JCC and some of the stuff on display was indeed genuinely magnificent. As I parked in the huge JCC car park, a nice casually dressed man asked me for some parking money. I explained to the chap that I had already paid at the barrier when I came in and he sloped off in a huff, clearly proud to be a part of this great nation's workforce.

As I strolled towards the conference centre, I came across a poster bearing the legend, "One Man, One Tree" under a nice photo of President SBY and a sturdy palm. Isn’t Indonesia great? Alas, this display of eco-nationalism didn't afford me the chance to win a new Blackberry if I could tell the two apart. Shame. I also wondered just where exactly 13 million Jakartans were supposed to plant these trees. You could demolish a few shopping malls to make a bit of space I reckon and give the poor kids somewhere to have a kickabout at the same time.

Inside the JCC, an unbelievable amount of batik and songket were on offer and ranged from the kind of cheap mass-produced sarongs that I like to cover my modesty with when I'm slopping around the house, to more expensive and quite beautiful items. You name it, it was there, batik shirts, dresses, T-shirt, bags and no doubt G-strings and condoms as well.

Having mislaid my one batik shirt that I used to wear to Indonesian weddings a while ago, I purchased a natty new blue and black model to stick in the wardrobe and get slowly eaten by moths. Even though I don't smoke, I made sure that my handsome new shirt sported the regulation Gudang Garam pockets in the front that I've always found handy for storing pieces of cake in at the aforementioned wedding buffets.

In the central auditorium area of the JCC, the stage was filled with children all banging drums and singing in Arabic. They weren't wearing batik shirts, unsurprisingly enough, and were instead kitted out in the full Arabic robes that seem to be increasingly de rigueur among the faithful here.

Indonesia may well accuse Malaysia of cultural infidelity however Indonesia's own increasing adoption of Middle Eastern dress, language and modes of cultural expression conjures up images of pots and kettles, to my mind anyway. The country's popular Pasantren (Islamic boarding schools) teach kids how to recite the Koran parrot fashion whilst the youngsters seemingly don't have much of a clue about what the words actually mean in a language they can understand. How many schools in this country teach their pupils how to play the gamelan?

What does cultural authenticity even mean any more in a postmodern, wired, Western hegemonised world? As Mr. Gandhi once said, "No culture can live if it aims to be exclusive." Back at the JCC, I picked up a pair of batik contact lenses to go with my shirt and headed out into the steaming Jakarta sun. How good it felt not to be in Malaysia.