Saturday, October 31, 2009

Nocturnal Emissions

Last week's interesting collection of features in your soaraway Globe focusing on Jakarta's traffic Hades got me in the mood for some serious motoring. I'm actually one of those green and sweaty Bike2Work loons and am usually to be found propelling myself on my trusty 18 speed alloy steed down the Busway lane to my office every morning. It's a journey of a mere 15 minutes and involves a lot of craning my neck around in order to ensure that I’m not squashed as flat as a ‘martabak’ pancake by a runaway TransJakarta behemoth.

More recently however, I've purchased a cheap, secondhand crate in order to cruise around town of an evening (and also to get the hell out of it of a weekend). I don't use the car on weekdays however, and this is not so much for any ostensibly green reasons as the fact that the experience gets me so pent-up that I almost end up slitting my wrists in order to lower my blood pressure. I've also, in some of my darker traffic jam moments here, considered pulling over to the side of the road and opening all of my car windows. A few deep breaths and I'd no doubt find myself farming harps before 10 minutes were up.

However, all of this urban anomie hasn't yet deterred me from the night-time pleasures of my vintage wheels and so I thought that I'd try and get hold of a compulsory emissions test sticker for the old girl. All vehicles in town are apparently required to display such a sticker by the end of this year. However, my expectations of actually being able to get hold of one of these elusive clean bills of automotive health were not high. Braver men than me have already tried and failed, if the newspaper reports are to be believed.

According to one story I read, citywide, a mere 17 garages have ordered a massive total of 3000 such emissions stickers to date, making the things as rare as hen's teeth. As per usual, where the city administration is concerned, it seems that the wheel is still spinning but the hamster has long since died. Determined to be upbeat though, I set off in order to check out the sticker situation down on the streets. After all, my office in Mampang is surrounded by literally dozens of garages, surely one would be able to give my exhaust pipe damn good fondling.

In the event however, my local mechanics proved to be about as helpful as a windscreen wiper on a cow's backside. Of the six garages I tried (including an official Honda Astra service centre) none had got the stickers. One of them did have an emissions testing machine (although no stickers) in fact, however the appliance in question appeared to be even older than my car. In the event, several hefty wallops from the grease monkey in charge couldn't really get the thing working properly. And so I remain sadly sticker-less.

Maybe I can get some carbon credits to offset my motor’s nocturnal emissions. You know, pay some Javanese farmers to plant a few more corn cobs than normal or something. Of course, if the city's vehicles emissions regulation was strictly enforced, then the only buses left on the road would be on the Busway itself, which possibly wouldn't be of tremendous help to the commuting public in the short term.

I refused to be disconsolate however and was determined to bag some kind of motoring story. I therefore went in search of one of those car jockeys that render the city's three-in-one car policy, currently enforced during rush hours on Jakarta’s main thoroughfares, completely toothless. And so it transpired that I picked up a mother and her child at the bottom end of Jl. Sudirman and we zoomed off northwards like a snail on Largactil.

My jockey told me that she could make up to five trips per day with the child, although she had to dodge both public order officials and other gangs of car jockeys who can sometimes turn nasty. Alas, she also told me that her husband had left her. I didn't offer to marry her and adopt the boy I'm ashamed to say although, in my defense, she did have the kind of dental work that convinced me she could eat a watermelon through a picket fence.

I ended up paying her Rp.20,000 at the other end of the line (I’m a soft touch) and dropped the pair of them off on Jl. Wahid Hasyim. I then parked up and went for a beer...erm...I mean a Coke.

And so the three-in-one farce continues. Apparently the government wants to introduce a more effective ERP (electronic road pricing) system like they have in Singapore. Alas however, according to this very newspaper, a "Disagreement about whether the Jakarta Government or the Ministry of Finance would collect the fees has helped halt implementation". Ho ho! Yes, I'll bet it has. Perhaps it's just as well that the money goes to the jockeys instead. Several cokes later I drove home alone. Sad really.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Sheikhin' Stevens

Well, I didn't manage to do anything particularly fun last weekend, unless you count going to the lavatory 20 times within the space of 48 hours time well spent. And so, pending verification from the Guinness Book of Records for my claim to have suffered the most rapid and total dehydration ever experienced by human being, I’d best think of something else to write about.

Luckily, something did happen just over a week ago that also got the old bowels rumbling. For the second time in two months, I found myself running frantically down flights of stairs and into the street, whilst the building I was in wobbled ominously around me. Many of you will have had similar experiences I am sure and will have found yourselves standing out on the pavement looking pointlessly up at the building that you just exited, wondering what would happen if a really big earthquake hit the capital.

Presumably, such a quake would make Padang look like a tea party in comparison. In fact, I was sent a warning on my office’s internal messaging system this week telling me to avoid buildings this Saturday as an earthquake registering 8.5 on the Richter scale would hit Jakarta on that day (today!). How this scaremonger had managed to achieve a feat that has eluded every geologist and seismologist in the world, namely the ability to predict both the time and place of earthquakes, wasn't made clear in the message.

At least our soothsayer hadn’t attempted to attach any theological significance to his prediction though, as has been the case in the wake of the Padang disaster. Various clerics have tried to match up the times of the tremors with passages in the Koran and were amazed to find verses of fire and brimstone corresponding to the hour and minute of the tectonic rumblings in question. Just possibly, if I chose a passage out of a holy book purely at random, then I would be quite likely to find similar descriptions of death and destruction however I thought that I would rise to the challenge that this latest Jakarta tremor has presented me with.

My watch registered 4.55pm when the tremblor struck and so, being from a Judaeo-Christian lineage, I thought that I'd try and match this time up with something from the Bible. A quick Google search (as I seem to have mislaid my own Bible) threw up the Book of Ezra, chapter 4, verse 55: "and likewise, the charges of the Levites, to be given them until the day that the house were finished and Jerusalem builded." It works! Well kind of. Houses being finished? There you go. It's all been preordained in the Scriptures.

Science, by contrast, admits to its limitations regarding the issue of earthquake prediction. In fact, we know far more about the centre of the Sun, a relatively simple system of lighter elements, than we do about what's under our feet. For well understood fault lines, seismic hazard assessment maps can estimate the probability that an earthquake of a given magnitude will affect a given location over a certain number of years, and that's about it. In terms of early warning systems, a few seconds is the most you're going to be able to get before major shaking arrives to lay waste to your place of residence.

On the other hand though, throughout history, observations of unusual animal behavior observed before earthquakes have been recorded by people from almost all civilizations. Some animals are indeed much more sensitive than human beings in terms of being able to detect vibrations or ultrasonic waves, although extensive research hasn't produced a lot of strong data on their powers of prediction.

Apparently, in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, a few minutes before the killer Asian Tsunami of December 2004, a herd of 500 blackbucks rushed away from coastal areas to the safety of a nearby hilltop. Alas though, the best you can probably hope for is that your dog starts howling about five seconds before your roof collapses on your head.

Well there you have it then, unless you're going to start living and working in a tent out in the street, then I'd forget about the big one if I were you and file it away at the back of your mind where it can haunt your dreams along with global warming, asteroid impacts and SARS. Indeed, in my more cynical moments, I find the prospect of Jakarta being utterly razed to the ground and laid waste to be quite an appealing one. Upended Busway buses falling into huge yawning chasms in the streets, deadly dull shopping malls being rent asunder, parliament coming crashing down on the heads of sleeping politicians, the entire city collapsing into Jakarta Bay leaving space for a rebirth, it would make for a great movie at the very least. They should get Miyabi in to play the plucky, mini-skirted seismologist whose warnings aren't heeded. I can see it now, Jakarta, West of Krakatau. It would be Karakatau, East of Java remade for the Blackberry generation and feature plenty of wobbling cleavage when the tremor strikes.

So it’s now Saturday. How are we doing for time? Did the 8.5 level big one materialize or not? Or do we live to fight another day?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Is It Rising, Son?

I've written much, of late, about the great Indonesia - Malaysia scrap. At the end of the day, maybe these nations are, in Shaw’s famous formulation of the US/UK divide, two countries separated by a common language. Last weekend however, I found myself in the midst of an altogether rosier bilateral relationship when I went for an afternoon stroll around the base of Southeast Asia's most prominent Freudian symbol, namely Monas, to the 2009 Jak-Japan Matsuri Festival, which was being held in the grounds of the park.

I was presented with a fetching plastic hand fan upon buying an entry ticket and, after fanning my lightly perspiring brow for a few moments, headed inside for a few cheap Land of the Rising Sun thrills. There were stalls a plenty to check out as well as entertainment on stage and various Japan themed costumes on show. A bunting of Japanese and Indonesian flags had been hung everywhere and, all in all, one could safely conclude that relations between the two countries had come a long way since Japan's World War II annexation of the Archipelago.

The two countries established diplomatic relations in 1958 and most recently established a bilateral free trade pact in July of last year. In fact, Japan has more investment tied up in Indonesia than in any other Southeast Asian country and Tokyo is particularly keen on accessing Indonesia's natural resources. Indonesia is currently Japan's largest supplier of liquefied natural gas, for example. Indonesia has also reciprocated by sending a whole load of care workers and nurses over to Japan in order to bed bath the country’s ageing population. And who wouldn't want to be cared for by a Javanese maiden in their dotage?

Japan's influence over Indonesia is indeed substantial, as the festival reflected. Years ago, I was once strolling along the road with my local girlfriend of the time when she suddenly remarked, "You know, I just thought, all these cars driving past are Japanese aren’t they? And in my house, my television, my fridge, my air-conditioner, my CD player, all Japanese, none of them were made in Indonesia and yet we use them."
"Erm... yes that's right," I ventured cautiously, not wishing to niggle any nationalist nerves or provoke any prickly pride (or indeed inflame any inferiority complexes). And it is indeed true that the post-World War II phenomenon that is Japan does pretty much sit at the opposite end of the Asian technological and industrial spectrum from Indonesia.

Mind you, my own country, England dear England, once the crucible of the industrial revolution, now sports a rapidly atrophying industrial and manufacturing base. These days, back in the perfidious Albion, those dark satanic mills have been replaced by the perceived sexiness of the service sector: financial schemes that you need a degree in mathematics to understand and the infinite, and yet ultimately insubstantial, Moebius strip of information technology.

Back at the Matsuri Festival, the Yamahas and Panasonics of this world were out in force, but so were smaller Japanese companies selling everything from boilers to tinned seafood. The snacks on sale were also as Japanese as they come. Octopus balls anyone? Presumably they have eight each.

A few Indonesian youngsters dressed up in that effete, androgynous, heavily made up Japanese teenage style were also wandering around, reflecting the influence that Japanese pop culture has also had on its Asian neighbours.

The real Indonesian - Japanese story of the hour though was conspicuous by its absence down at the Matsuri. I asked some of the DVD vendors at the festival whether they had anything starring Maria Ozawa AKA Miyabi but alas, to my great chagrin, the cupboard was bare and so I was left with only the Panasonic AC units and the boilers to admire which, fascinating as they were, lacked that human interest element that I was looking for. Having looked Miss Ozawa up on the Internet, I can testify that she certainly isn't a boiler.

Miyabi, a Japanese porn starlet, has been cast to appear (fully clothed I might add) in an Indonesian production entitled Menculik Miyabi (Kidnapping Miyabi) to predictable fundamentalist uproar. In fact, the FPI (Islamic Defenders Front) had this week even threatened to accost the poor wee lamb at the airport, which may have led to her recent decision (Wednesday’s paper) not to come at all. Damn shame.

And in other news from the misogyny desk this week, I note that newly crowned Miss Indonesia, Qory Sandioriva, has also received many warm messages of support from her local clerics in Aceh. The great evil beast of female sexuality strikes again it would seem. Personally, I doubt that the fundamentalists would know what to do with one virgin let alone 72. And of course, they are all most likely virgins themselves. It's that old psychic hydraulic system striking again: push down and repress male sexuality and it bursts out with renewed vigor elsewhere, twisted into new misanthropic shapes and religious foment.

As for myself back at the Matsuri, I was on my eighth octopus ball by this time and starting to feel a little nauseous. Miyabi-less and snowed under by plasma TV promotional materials, I headed for the exit feeling like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation. Domo Arigato and see you all next week.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

New Jack City

Alas these are sad, sad days in Indonesia once again. Last week, I had a few periods with no electricity due to PLN's problems however this is as nothing in comparison to those in Padang who have been left with no electricity, no water, no walls, no roof and, in many instances, no family. As with the famous Krakatau eruption of 1883, not to mention the Aceh tsunami, natural disaster seems to have once again pushed many into the arena of the divine punishment thesis. This is a conclusion almost as depressing as the disaster itself.

All that I can add to the debate is to say that I actually get updates from God on Twitter (or Twod, as he may well come to be known. Go and check, he really is on there). Anyway, I can assure everyone that I have received no Tweets from him declaiming, "All you sinners perish," or even, "Sorry, my hand slipped."

Let us be clear. It is an analysis of plate tectonics and a look at different types of building structures and materials, plus the formation of a rapid response disaster team that would be the most helpful future insurance against loss of life. Stopping young girls and boys from being able to meet each other will not still the shaking ground. Simple. May help come swiftly to the victims and may donations be generous. May the government also work on plans for the future, just as they have previously on the tsunami early warning system. Let us hope that the city of Padang and its beautiful surrounding countryside will rise again.

Moving on, I think that we all need a little cheering up and with this goal in mind, I this week trekked off for a meal at Toni Jack's, the new burger joint that has sprung up with ill advised confidence on the city’s streets. Toni Jack's is owned by the controversial businessman, Bambang Rachmadi, owner of 13 McDonald's outlets as well as the recently liquidated and beautifully named Bank IFI (pronounced, "Iffy”). A franchise dispute has forced Mr. Rachmadi to part company with McDonald's and come up with a new name and concept for his burger joints. Consequently, Toni Jack's has now been hastily launched on an unsuspecting public.

The flagship McDonald's Sarinah branch has for a long time been something of a landmark in Jakarta and was the first-ever McDonald's to hit the country in the early 90s, symbolizing the country’s developmental aspirations. However the joint now sports a temporary Toni Jack's pirate motif banner that has been draped over its newly defunct golden arches.

When it opened, this trailblazing branch of McDonald's was frequented by the rich and famous. When I first caught up with it on a few 4 a.m. post clubbing missions a few years later however, the place had become a horror of disheveled hookers and drunken stumblers pushing cardboard fries into their faces under the unforgiving glare of the dining area’s ultra white strip lighting. Wrong time of day perhaps.

Everything has now changed though and Ronald the clown's malevolent Cheshire cat grin has been replaced by Toni, the childhood nickname of Mr. Rachmadi apparently. I'm guessing that Mr. R doesn't drive a little car with falling off doors though. The Toni Jack's slogan is, "Better than 'that one' " which is hardly the catchiest of taglines although full marks are surely due for barefaced cheek. So was it better than 'That one'? I ordered an Ultra Jack (Rp.22,200) from an assistant rather awkwardly wearing a black Toni Jack's pirate bandana on top of her jilbab and sat down for an artery clogging munch. The Ultra proved to be a superlatively average experience and I was also disappointed that there was no slice of gherkin in it, surely the best part of a McDonald's burger. It would not surprise me though, given the corporate hegemony currently chewing up the free world for fun and profit, to learn that McDonald's has actually patented the gherkin’s DNA for its own exclusive use.

And so Indonesia proves that it can create fast food every bit as flaccid as its Western counterparts. What's wrong with a good old Soto Ayam I'd like to know? As for McDonald’s, well they seem to have been replaced by Starbucks as the bĂȘte noire of the so-called anti-globalization movement (as its been dubbed by the world's advertising enslaved media). Personally, I'd be inclined to describe people banding together across national borders in order to stick up for an increasingly desperate lowest strata of society as a globalisation movement as opposed to an anti-globalisation movement, but hey ho, horses for courses, which brings me right back to Toni.

Presumably, all of their burgers are ‘halal’. In purely environmental terms, beef is apparently far more destructive than either pork or chicken is, due to the amount of grazing land needed. It's also common practice to feed cows with chicken droppings, I’ve recently learnt, a fact that's been rather putting me off my beef ‘rendang’ in recent days.

All things considered though, I'm sure that TJ’s can make a go of it if they can find a decent gherkin substitute. Perhaps the classic Indonesian single slice of tomato and two slices of cucumber will suffice.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

On The Frontline

They say that it's the pessimist that sees the half empty glass, however Jakarta's annual semi-emptying out during the Islamic holiday is largely a source of relief for those who remain behind. The near deserted markets, boulevards and plazas become like some post-apocalyptic science fiction scenario, a concrete ghost town marking the end of days. The capital's population now seems to be restored to its full glory however, no doubt with a few extra residents added as various greenhorn villagers attempt to chance their arm scraping a living together in the big city selling The Botols.

I'm actually quite glad to see Jakarta restored to its full multibillion quota of bodies. I'm not just being perverse here, rather it's just that there’s never any shortage of intrigue with which to fill 850 words of weekend wallpaper with, and I need inspiration at times I can tell you.

This week, I visited a friend who lives uptown on the coast. Most of you have, I'm sure, trundled up to Ancol before for some fun and frolics with the family. Just along the coast however, you'll find the rather less well-known Pantai Mutiara. Hit to the toll road aiming for the airport and then peel off to the right onto the large eastward bending fly over before turning left into Pluit. Head through Pluit itself for another 15 minutes or so and you'll eventually arrive at the posh Pantai Mutiara marina stroke housing complex.

Pluit is known as a predominantly ethnic Chinese area of town. I've talked of Indonesian-Chinese and Chinese-Indonesians before and have heard both terms been used interchangeably in the country. Our US cousins like to talk of African-Americans however, and these people are most definitely not Texan cowboys living in Nigeria and so I'm presuming that Chinese-Indonesian is the more correct term. Many Indonesians just called them Chinese of course, omitting the Indonesian altogether, which perhaps shows you that the country has some ways to go towards integrating its racial politics into one big happy family.

But I digress. The marina complex is well worth a stroll around of an afternoon. The complex itself is well over two decades old and was built on land that has been entirely reclaimed from the sea. According to my Chinese-Indonesian friend, who has lived in the area since the late 80s, a cement factory was the first thing to be built at the site. The plant churned out God alone knows how many hundreds of millions of concrete blocks, all of which were simply dumped into the sea until eventually a brand-new mini peninsular was formed. On this was built some quite spectacularly huge bolt holes for those who have managed to squeeze quite a lot of rupiah filled camels through the eye of life's needle, as well as some more modest townhouses.

Some of the mansions even have their own mini quays out the front so that residents can park their motorboats next to the Mercedes in the driveway. The complex has had a few subsidence issues in recent years (as has the rest of Jakarta in fact) and a wall has been built which prevents flooding from the sea but which also blocks out many of the residents' views of the ocean.

Out on the long Marina promenade itself, take a long stroll down to lands end and enjoy the cool sea breeze before heading back to the seafront restaurant/cafe for a cleansing ale. Admittedly, the sea just off Jakarta isn't the bluest of hues but you can't have everything.

At the tip of the reclaimed peninsular, sits the spectacular new Regatta the Icon complex. This interesting new landmark has been built around a yacht sail motif and sports huge triangular edifices which jut from its roofs and which lend Jakarta’s coastline a Sydney Opera house vibe.

Me and my chum soon found ourselves at this impressive construction after our stroll along the promenade and stood awhile looking out to sea lest we spot a Malaysian armada attempting some kind of D-Day landing on the shores of Jakarta, possibly the next escalation of aggression in the current spat between these two great nations.

Fortunately, the coast appeared to be clear, however the city administration may wish to consider installing a few machine-gun nests on the shore line, just in case. Be warned, if you're considering purchasing a plush condo up at Pantai Mutiara then you may find yourself on the frontline.

Indonesial, as the country has been dubbed in retaliation for the Malingsia pun, looks more likely to strike the first blow however. According to an article I read in the Globe last week, an elite cadre of a couple of hundred unemployed layabouts (many of whom are wheelchair-bound interestingly enough) claim to be ready to storm Malaysia’s ramparts, possibly in full batik combat fatigues, and then it's game on. Perhaps a Mohamed Atta kamikaze death spiral into the Petronas Twin Towers is also on the cards as the ASEAN region makes a bid for its own 9/11. We will fight them on the beaches.