Friday, May 29, 2009

Tealeaf Grief

Just recently, my comrades and I and our crumbling South Jakartan pied-à-terre have suffered a grave insult to our hallowed, if grimy portals. We have been burgled, three times to be precise, in the last few months. Money has vanished but also high-tech gadgetry such as fancy MP3 players and the like. On one of this trio of violations, our light fingered nemesis entered into our house and rifled a friend's room whilst he was actually in it (admittedly he had been passed out on the bed at the time after a taxing evening on the Teh Botol).

Such acts of brazen illegality could not go uninvestigated and after a CSI type house meeting we eventually settled on the likely culprits, namely the builders renovating the property directly abutting our own. These suspicions were confirmed a week or so later when, increasingly on our guard, we saw an agile chap shin down the wall from the builders' den and sneak into our back garden.

Alas, hoist by the petard of our new vigilant security measures, my friend was unable to unlock the back terrace door quickly enough in order to rugby tackle this objectionable fellow before he made good his escape over the front gate. Interestingly, and in true Cinderella fashion though, he had lost a mouldy old flip-flop in his panic. We took the offending item inside to the forensic laboratory that we have permanently set up in the garage in order to validate the veracity of the various molestation claims that are frequently leveled at the house and its residents.

We considered bringing in the local police and subjecting out kleptomaniacal construction crew to a Cinderella style identification lineup. "Whosoever this flip-flop shall fit will have his face punched and his behind kicked all the way back to Central Java," something along those lines. Ultimately though, we decided against the cops as a first line of defense. Fine bodies of men they may well be in their intimate figure hugging, "I love Village People" brown shirts however in my experience Indonesian policeman usually create more problems than they solve, especially if palefaces are involved.

This left us with only one recourse, namely our local security man and neighbourhood chief or Rukun Tetangga (RT). Alas, as I expected, our man could only spout the usual Orwellian Suharto era bilge about us having to report our guests to him 24 hours in advance (something that I've never heard of anyone ever doing in Jakarta, but perhaps some fastidious reader could set me straight here).

Having so many security men and Sat Pams in the area is perhaps a good thing however our agile criminals were entering our premises via the back garden, thus obviating the need to assail the house from the road at the front at all. Later we saw the police patrol car that we often see crawling through the neighborhood, parked outside the construction site. Further investigation revealed a couple of cops talking to some of the builders. Hopefully they were having the hard word put on them and their ID checked.

It's hard for even the most sanguine of people (of whose number I certainly don't count myself) not to be enraged by theft. Indonesia thieves have to be especially stealthy as they commit their foul acts however as they run the very real risk of being mobbed and kicked to death by locals wearing flip-flops, a painfully slow way to have one's account closed and perhaps a rather excessive punishment for the crime of taking a chicken, or even a motor scooter.

In my native UK on the other hand, the delicate balance between law abiding members of the public and burglars has perhaps tilted too far back in the other direction in recent years. My own family home in London has been burgled twice in recent years in fact and wicked young vermin (or rat boys as they are colloquially known) have even taken to dropping their trousers and leaving a, "deposit" on the floors of the homes that they rob. Talk about adding insult to injury.

Our intruding construction worker was probably on about Rp.40,000 per day, as I believe the going rate is, and is no doubt supporting a wife and a litter of mewling puppies back in Central Java somewhere. As such, perhaps some leniency is due, I mean, at least he didn’t curl one off on our living room floor. On the other hand though, if I ever catch him red-handed, I’ll be sorely tempted to re-enact the old Idi Amin tactic and force him to eat his one remaining flip-flop. I feel somewhat conflicted in other words.

Of course, our man hasn't been set a very good example by the country's real thieves. As some bright spark once noted, “A thief passes for a gentleman when theft has made him rich." As the presidential election looms large and various people are investigated for golf caddie related murders, let us hope that the Indonesian Corruption Commission (KPK) is able to continue with its fine work and can help create a more inspiring model for our single soled sadsack to aspire to. Amen.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Tell Me About Your Mother…

In the wake of April’s parliamentary elections, many failed candidates apparently lost their perhaps already feeble grip on the lodestone and, unable to face defeat, were admitted to various mental health facilities across the archipelago. A couple even ‘cashed in their parliamentary deposits’ as it were and took their own lives.

In the warp and weft of Indonesia’s social fabric, many emotions are seemingly repressed as people try to conform to the sometimes rigid demands of the culture. Perhaps a few analytic couches around the archipelago would help many to deal with their various issues and help to prevent more politicians from topping themselves (although many of you probably wouldn’t have a problem with that).

Psychoanalysis is the school of psychology which was founded by famed Viennese quack, Sigmund Freud, in the late 19th century and which has been refined by various other intellectuals since then. I thought, this week, that it might be a fun exercise to put Indonesia on the couch, so to speak, to see if there are any potential areas of conflict in its collective psyche that may prevent it from functioning properly, just as there may be in any individual person undertaking analysis. Even though there are differences between group psychology and the psychology of the individual, there are enough similarities for us to be justified in drawing certain parallels.

Central to Psychoanalysis is the concept of the unconscious, an area of the mind in which resides drives, desires, fantasies, attitudes and motivations about which we know nothing. At the opposite end of the mental spectrum from the unconscious is the superego, or conscience, which incorporates the morality and the ideals of the culture of which it is a part and which includes feelings of guilt.

So let's get down to psychoanalytic cases. An extremely high level of corruption is certainly something that prevents Indonesia's body politic and collective psyche from functioning smoothly (you just ask Mr. Antasari, the golf loving now ex head of the KPK anti corruption commission). Psychoanalysts talk of the pleasure principle and the reality principle. A child functions exclusively under the pleasure principle; he knows only what he wants (pleasure and not pain) and can not recognize reality. Adults cannot live by this principle because society does not permit it. It is the function of the ego (the conscious mind) to transform the pleasure principle of childhood into the reality principle of adult life and thus to take into account societies restrictions and prohibitions as the subject seeks to find satisfactory solutions for his life. Corruptors here often seem to be arrested at the pleasure principle stage of development, i.e. they quite simply can't not steal the money that is in front of them, despite the potential consequences and thus, to avoid painful emotions such as severe anxiety, guilt and shame, they have to mount ego defenses.

Ego defenses are a normal psychological device but their pathological manifestation, as we sometimes see in this country, inhibits normal functioning. Denial and projection are, according to Freud, very primitive ego defenses because they originate in early childhood. They are, however, defenses that we see being used time and time again when we read Indonesian newspaper stories. When in denial, a child (or corrupter) is reprimanded for something he has done. For fear he will be punished, he insists that he didn't do it, even though he knows perfectly well he did. The next step is automatic; he insists his brother (or colleagues) did it.

In the ego defense of projection, a person's feelings of guilt or shame are assuaged by projecting their own faults onto others. It’s like seeing yourself in a mirror and believing that the image is actually somebody else. In Indonesia, social taboos and transgressive behavior such as premarital sex or political idologies such as aggressive, neo-imperialistic policies are usually projected onto the West and thus the country avoids having to confront its own inadequacies.

Female sexuality and masculine bias are also central tenets of psychoanalysis. Freud talked of penis envy in the female unconscious but more recent psychoanalytic theory postulates that the reverse is also true, namely that men envy women for their greater sexual capacity and for their ability to create life. Man cannot create or nurture life like women and their power over life lies in their ability to destroy it. This creates an envy which lies behind male subjugation of women, something hitting the headlines here with the introduction of the draconian new pornography law and increasing sharia-isation of the provinces. Prohibition against any celebration or display of female sexuality is now on a religion backed upsurge. A few religious leaders engaging in a few courses of therapy on the couch would possibly relieve pressure on Indonesia’s sisterhood.

So, the prognosis for our couch bound archipelago? It's hard to say but a few more years in analysis should help. This shouldn't be construed as an insult though. There's really no stigma attached to undergoing analysis these days. A few couches in and around the corridors of power would be a good start, after all it would be a shame if any Presidential or vice presidential candidates also took their own lives. Prabowo and Wiranto in analysis? Let the healing begin.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Worm That Turned

Squeamish readers may wish to avert their gazes from this week's tale of woe which concerns graphic, stomach churning scenes of parasitic infestation. You've been warned.

A couple of weeks back, a small red trail running just under my skin started to emerge from a blister that I had on the side of my foot. After a week or so it had stretched all the way over to the top of my plate of meat. "Something is alive in there!" I eventually fathomed. I had visions of a multiheaded hydra bursting forth from my foot, teeth gnashing before slithering up my leg and sinking its fangs into my family jewels. Clearly something had to be done.

I had vague childhood memories of watching news reports from Africa during which emaciated guinea worm infected tribes people would puncture their skins and attempt to remove said worms by winding them around twigs, taking special care not to break them. A panicked Google search threw up a number of possibilities. Strongyloides Stercoralis (threadworm) appeared to be the most likely parasitic infestation that my foot squatter went under the name of. Apparently such a worm can enter through the human foot after a, "Fecal contamination of soil." Hmmm. I'd just like to assure anyone reading this that my housemates and I never, well very seldom anyway, defecate in the back garden, usually preferring the comfort, extensive magazine library and general plumbing facilities of the bathroom.

No matter though, recriminations could come later. My immediate priority was to drag my sorry behind down to my local, low-budget health centre in Mampang. I entered the surgery and the newly qualified young female doctor immediately perked up. Something had come along to alleviate the tedium of the usual diarrhea and acid reflux cases that she dealt with. A bule with an alien worm buried in him no less, ruining the porcelain beauty of his lilywhite dermis.

"Ooooh! I've never seen a real one of these before," she exclaimed, not particularly reassuringly I thought. After promising that the red trail advancing with reckless abandon across my foot was not in fact filled with a 5 inch long worm but was merely the trail left behind by a much, much smaller beastie, I relaxed a little. She prescribed me some Combantrin, an antiparasitic tablet that everyone in this country should probably take a handful of twice a year, and then sent me along to the emergency room to have the thing killed.

I started to feel uneasy again. How would they dispense with the wee critter? Lethal injection? Sharp blow to the back of the head? In the end, the top of my foot was liberally and excruciatingly sprayed with ice spray, the stuff that nancy boy footballers have applied when they damage their sensitive ligaments on the field of play. Great, I now had a dead frozen worm inside my foot, a massive ice spray induced migraine and a team of rubbernecking medics surrounding me, all wanting a look at my unusual fauna.

It was time to head home to lick my wounds (not literally of course, that would have been hideous). In the great struggle for survival though, here embodied by miniscule worm versus man, man had won, and it felt good. The war will continue though and nature will persist in being bloody in both tooth and claw until our plucky little planet suffers the heat death some 5 billion years from now.

My worm horror did remind me of something that Britain's great TV naturalist, Sir David Attenborough, once said. When challenged about his championing of evolution and asked how he could not believe that such beauty and perfection as can be found in a butterfly's wing or a peacock’s feather was not made by God, Sir Dave pondered a moment. "At this moment," he eventually said, "there will be a child in East Africa with a worm burrowing through his eyeball. The worm cannot live in any other way except by burrowing through eyeballs. I find that hard to reconcile with the notion of a divine and benevolent Creator." Thankfully, my worm hasn't left me in need of a white stick but Attenborough, perhaps the missing link between Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins in the great evolutionary chain of popular evolutionists, had made a telling point.

This year is the hundredth anniversary of Darwin's death, however his theory of evolution (theory meaning fact in scientific language you understand) shows little sign of gaining a worm like foothold among the genuflecting faithful of countries such as Indonesia (or indeed the debasement of science by America's creationist militants).
Bird flu and swine flu lurk in the wings ready to pounce and unleash pandemic chaos. Why? Because they evolve. It's Tamiflu or prayer folks; probably both for many, you may as well cover your bases ay? In the meantime, let's hope that those foot worms don't undergo a vigorous process of natural selection and end up putting us all in wheelchairs. Personally, I’ll be wearing sandals from now on when I go for a squat in the bushes.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Two-Wheeled Warriors or Two Bit Wankers?

Last Monday I awoke to find that several missed calls and text messages had broken the Zen like calm of the screensaver on my usually undisturbed mobile phone. Closer investigation revealed that my housemate had been in an accident.

He had apparently stepped out of a Pondok Indah bar last Sunday night after a typically sporty afternoon sitting on his posterior cramming his face with carbohydrates and ethyl alcohol. Whilst he attempted to cross the road a Valentino Rossi wannabe doing about 780 km per hour in 36th gear (with no lights on incidentally) had mowed him down. He then stopped briefly, turned around, saw a paleface slumped at the side of the road squirting claret from his forehead like some kind of satanic sprinkler system and sped off into the night.

I caught up with my chum a few hours and seven stitches later and he was pretty banged up. He certainly won't be hiking up any rugged volcanoes in the near future, not that he was planning to any way of course. In fact, I was just musing to myself that sitting in bed for a few days being waited on hand and foot may suit my companion down to the ground when our first visitor arrived at the house bearing a novel variation on the traditional convalescent gift of grapes (several bottles of beer and packets of cigarettes in fact).

Seeing my friends so stricken brought back unpleasant memories of my own motorcycle accident of three years ago. On that occasion, I ploughed into a Bajaj which had been trying to execute a rather unorthodox U-turn and had spun through the air, eventually breaking four bones. Needless to say that my Born to Be Wild days were over at that point.

The common motif here is motorcycles of course. Not only are there too many of the things on Jakarta's streets but they are also largely ridden by people with a minimal awareness of road safety. Bikes, piloted by riders wearing ludicrous plastic baseball hats, swarm around cars and up onto the pavements sounding like squadrons of mosquitoes the size of 747's. Cars will flash motorcyclists to let them know that they've left their lights on during the day but seem unwilling to flash them at night to let them know that they have left their lights off; go figure. In fact, it seems that at least 20% of Jakarta's bikes ride around at night without lights. There are also the swine who ride up the wrong side of the street to contend with of course.

Jakarta's hospitals are full of the results of biking accidents. Riders who have crashed through railings at 90 km per hour and emerged like a portion of French fries, riders who have had promising careers in the hospitality industry curtailed after skidding for several hundred meters on their eyebrows. What to do though? Have prole will travel.

I, for my part, may have sold my trusty Tiger but is barreling down the busway lane on my bicycle to any practical degree safer than hang gliding off the top of Monas in a heavy thunderstorm? People have mused long and hard about possible solutions to the city's transport woes but I've come to the conclusion that there aren't any. All that we can do is wait the 50 years that it will take global warming to turn swampy Jakarta into a tropical and rather muddy Venice and hit the waters in our sampans. Mind you, unlike many Indonesians, I can actually swim.

In the meantime, I'd implore the city's bikers to adhere to my five-point safe biking plan:

1. The orange flashy lights on the side of your machines can actually be controlled from the handlebars and can be used to indicate that you are about to turn.

2. Text messaging with the left hand whilst operating the throttle with the right may indeed represent a fantastic symbiosis of human being with technology, however, you could find yourself pushing this man/ machine fusion one stage further when your brain is worked into the tread of a passing bus tyre.

3. A clearance of more than five angstroms is preferable when passing other cars or pedestrians.

4. When buses stop, people like to get either onto or off them.

5. Time spent overtaking buses and cars by pulling out into the oncoming lane should not exceed 50% of the total riding time.

That’s my constructive advice and I hope that my suggestions will be translated into Indonesian and pinned to every set of traffic lights in the very near future. Hopefully my friend will have soon recovered enough to once again enjoy his Sunday afternoons. Perhaps bike manufacturers may also wish to consider fitting some kind of speed limiters to their products. Pottering around Jakarta at the sort of pace that could see you getting burned off at the lights by Stephen Hawking is surely to be encouraged.

Be safe all of you two wheeled warriors, and if you can't be safe, at least look contrite when an irate pedestrian flips you the bird.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

I'm an Rich Indonesian, Get Me Out of Here

I sometimes put myself through the pain of watching local Indonesian television. I'm not exactly sure why, perhaps it’s to maintain some psychic connection with the country's square eyed masses, although most likely it’s because it affords me the opportunity to ogle nubile young actresses throwing pouty fits in otherwise execrable Sinetron soap operas. No matter, the point is that last week I was absentmindedly flicking through the usual channels of bilge when, purely by accident, I chanced upon the most delicious reality show I've ever seen, Tukar Nasib (literally: Exchange of Fate).

The premise behind the show is that a poor family and a rich family exchange houses and lives for a three day period in order to see how the other half lives. The simple ideas are often the best and, as far as I'm aware, such raising of class consciousness is unprecedented on prime-time Indonesian TV, which is usually so detached from reality that even the Sinetron actors have changed their names to Jeremy and the like.

As the SCTV show unfolded, I gleefully watched as the wealthy Pak Joko, along with his two young brats and Chanel brained wife left their huge Jakarta mansion and went to live in the considerably more pedestrian forest home (a hut in fact) of Pak Nuryanto's family. Meanwhile, Nuryanto, along with his wife and filial urchins headed up to the big smoke in order to luxuriate in Pak Joko's largesse.

We first see Joko and family tottering into the forest in their designer togs, lugging huge suitcases. When they finally clock the hut that there will be staying in its clear that the hapless patriarch Joko is going to have a fight on his hands convincing his petit bourgeois clan of the merits of the whole Tukar Nasib concept. In fact, the kids start crying and even the wife threatens to head home immediately, a disappointingly spineless but perhaps all too predictable reaction to an ordeal that will last a mere three days.

When Joko finally bundles them into the hut, a fresh challenge materialises as the camera crew gleefully dispossesses the family of their baggage and, horror of horrors, their mobile phones too, leaving them in what they are standing up in. Excellent. A veritable comedic banquet then ensues as The Swiss Family Joko battle with the reality of their situation, crying like babies and whining like the spoilt slobs they are.

Mrs. Joko tries to get the open fire going in order to cook and nearly burns the hut down. Ultimately this proves a waste of time anyway as the kids spit out the resulting meal immediately. The next day, Mr. Joko and his daughters attempt to plough the fields with the aid of a bull, which subsequently escapes whilst the unhappy crew continually fall arse over tit into the mud like baby hippos. Meanwhile the wife attempts to wash the family's clothing in a river and the garments are swept from her grasp and carried downstream. The family is also forced to deal with a snake that enters the hut, no doubt encouraged in by the TV crew outside in order to lend the show a bit of spice. It was a rum, rum do indeed.

Meanwhile, back in town, the dentally challenged Pak Nuryanto and family wonder wide eyed around Chez Joko like the Star Trek crew beaming down onto an alien planet. All is not rosy for the Nuryanto family either in their leap several dozen rungs up the social ladder. For a start, Mrs. Nuryanto is unable to use the washing machine and washes the clothes by hand before laying them out to dry on the immaculately manicured lawn outback. The stove also seems to be beyond Mrs. N. and she comically builds a brick stove in the garden.

Similar problems of technological illiteracy abound at the ATM and the wife and kids take a half hour extracting a few funds. Now I know why I'm often left frustratingly waiting outside the city's cashpoints, the things are full of migrant farmers. Ultimately though, the Nuryantos enjoy a nice satay dinner and, despite their travails and sense of alienation, manage to get through the three days with their dignity intact (i.e. without blubbing like big girls' blouses every five minutes like the Joko family do).

Eventually the two families return to their respective pads, both glad to be home. The Joko kids jump on their mobile phones like greyhounds on rabbits (they don't call them Crackberries for nothing) and the Nuryantos are finally able to get clean again in their river, as they felt that using a mandi was a trifle unhygienic.

One would hope that Tukar Nasib proves to be a learning experience for both families. The Jokos will ideally have learnt a little humility and been awakened to the great poverty that lies around them and the Nuryantos would have had their consciousnesses raised about inequality and class struggle.

Alas though, three days is certainly not a long enough time for this experiment to yield much in the way of results. Three months would have been better I think. In my fantasy though, the Nuryantos get into city life and refuse to leave the Joko residence, instead deciding to squat there permanently. The Jokos then have to retake their house by force using only Nuryantos rusty farming implements. Something to think about for the next series if any SCTV program planners are reading this.