Saturday, March 27, 2010


Recently, a friend of mine suggested an evening’s R&D mission to possibly the dodgiest area of Jakarta. I am referring to Kalijodo, a street full of bar/brothels that lies next to the less than crystalline waters of the Grogol River just under the airport toll road in West Jakarta. The notorious Kalijodo red light district has apparently existed for about 300 years and some of its more wizened residents look as if they've been around for a significant proportion of that time.

Anyway, on Tuesday evening, the three of us parked up a side street close by to the 100 or so not exactly club class Bintang, baso and bonking joints that line the main Kalijodo strip. We soon found ourselves enjoying the fragrant ammonia fragrance of the river air as we promenaded past the endless parade of neon lit Bintang signs and locals trying to beckon us into tiny discos resembling Guatemalan prison cells, all blasting out 1000 watts of Dangdut classics. Surely a romantic ambience to rival Paris in the spring.

"Looking lady Mr?" came the persistent refrain however I think I can speak for all three of us when I say that the Guantanamo Bay atmosphere of many of these shantytown dance floors proved to be something of a passion killer. Many of these places look as if you'd need to wipe your feet on the way out. 

The general dilapidation and desperation of the area was palpable and we soon sought refuge in what appeared to be the highest class joint in the area, the sizeable Intan Executive Club. We stepped across the threshold and our eyes adjusted to the near pitch black interior. Many clubs in Jakarta seem to be enamored of the darkened movie theatre approach to interior design. Perhaps it’s all part of an energy-saving push for a greener, more ecologically sustainable prostitution industry or maybe every watt saved on lighting can be channeled mercilessly into the earsplitting PA systems, which will have you curling up into a foetal position if you're foolish enough to select a table close to the speakers. Most likely though, the darkness of these places provides a reassuring cloak of anonymity for the gentleman punters whose significant other halves wouldn't be too pleased if they knew where their hubbies were.

On our Tuesday night mission however, we were the only ‘executives’ in attendance and thus we were given the royal treatment. Every single person in the building it seemed (including around 20 girls) was paraded past us and shook our hands. The Intan was clearly a cut above the other horny truck driver haunts that we'd seen earlier and the not quite Vegas-esque cabaret at least made us young executives feel as if we were on more familiar Jakarta nightlife territory.

Mind you, maybe all is class snobbery. This may have represented the cheaper end of the spectrum but, in fact, Jakarta is saturated with prostitution and there are places to suit all income brackets, even five-star hotels. Kalijodo itself exists in a sort of corrupt legal grey area, despite various efforts to shut it down, as do many of the city's cat houses, spas and naughty karaoke joints.

Prostitution itself is legal in some parts of the world and illegal in others and even feminists don't agree on this topic. Those in favour of legalisation say that in a free society, making the world's oldest trade illegal violates basic rights and individual liberties. Obviously it's a crime to force somebody into such activity however, if you sell your body of your own volition, then that is your right. There's also the pragmatic argument that legalisation protects women from disease and violence as they can be monitored and helped. In New York, apparently close to 60% of streetwalkers carry the AIDS virus whereas in Nevada, where there is a legalised free market in prostitution, AIDS barely registers. At a deeper, more philosophical level, author Angela Carter posits an oft heard argument reflecting wider economic power in our society thus, "What is marriage but prostitution to one man instead of many?"

Opponents of prostitution say that it commodifies women as sex objects, leads to violence against them and is a consequence of male domination. I guess that I'd say that, for better or worse, the flesh trade is ineradicable and will always be with us, whether legal or illegal, a direct consequence of the fact that human beings possess a mix of genes typical to both monogamous and non-monogamous species. Schopenhauer once said, "There are 80,000 prostitutes in London alone and what are they, if not bloody sacrifices on the altar of monogamy?"

You'll never get rid of Jakarta's night butterflies, that’s for sure, as the seedy boulevards of Kalijodo testify. You’d have more chance of enjoying a night of passion with Herr Ratzinger (actually... scratch that). If you're going to criminalize hooking though, then at least bust the men as well as (or even instead of) the girls. It's always the ladies who are victimized here, as with the case of the sexy dancers in Bandung who were recently prosecuted. There's a certain strain of misogyny in Indonesian society that is unfortunately dovetailing with the increasing Islamification of the country at the moment.

I know a girl who was once in a group rounded up by the police for the crime of being in a disco. She was sent to a so-called, "Re-education," Centre in East Jakarta (it was a prison) in order to learn sewing (great). Encouragingly though, she managed to escape after three months by climbing out of a second-floor window and jumping down off a 10 foot wall to freedom. Girl power at its best.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Livin' on a Prayer

Last weekend, I went off in search of answers. Usually its questions of a trivial nature that keep me awake at night, questions such as: Why is there only one monopolies commission? Is there another word for synonym? Or, if one synchronised swimmer drowns, do they all have to drown? This time however, matters of a less trivial nature were vexing me and so I decided to turn to God (well, one of them, the Christian one in fact).

Now Christians often have a rough time around this neck of the woods. Over in Malaysia, they have recently come under fire (quite literally) for their use of the word 'Allah'. Meanwhile, closer to home, bigotry and the mob mentality often predominates over pluralism and Indonesian churches are often blockaded and denied permits. Most recently, over in Bekasi, Muslim residents closed a local church after complaining that it was disturbing their sleep, which I must say I found ironic to say the least.

Christians are, as a result of all these shenanigans, often to be found hiding in churches located deep within shopping plazas and commercial estates in Jakarta. These are not perhaps ideal locations, given Jesus's attitude to the money changers and the like but perhaps, on another level, entirely fitting if you subscribe to the opium of the masses argument (and aren't shopping plazas our new churches after all?)

And so, last Sunday, I decided to pop along to one of these retail houses of worship to see what goes on and to do a bit of clapping. I soon found myself down at the Bellagio Plaza in the Mega Kuningan area, where the Jakarta City Blessing Church sits on the top floor.

I strolled inside the hypermodern house of the Lord and passed a door marked, ‘Sunday School’, which immediately gave me a flashback to the many tedious Sunday mornings of my youth. I shuddered and headed on into the Church proper. Inside, a mix of ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indonesians were gathered waiting patiently for the service to begin.

The mall church's interior was fully carpeted and crammed with plasma TV screens. A four piece electric band sat in the corner, ready to rock out below a painted ceiling mural of fluffy white clouds and infinite blue skies, which looked something like the Sistine Chapel done by Walt Disney. Basically, it was the complete antithesis of the cold pews and dour piety of the old British churches of my childhood and, I guess, more redolent of the American mega church phenomenon.

As if to confirm my USA for Jesus thesis, the female pastor stepped up to the altar, the band burst into life and the congregation leapt to its feet, ready to bellow out a Bon Jovi-esque soft rock power hymn. Rather than hymn books, the worshippers followed the words karaoke style on the church’s TV screens. It was all a very long way from, "Abide with Me" wavering out over creaking organ pipes.

The pastor skilfully worked up through the gears and into a religious semi-frenzy as she implored the congregation to pray for people from, "Pulau Nias all the way to Pulau Roti." Many of the congregation had their eyes closed by this point and their palms held forward, as if warming themselves in the Lord’s divine light. Yes, it was all very American of course, although the assembled parishioners stopped short of speaking in tongues and going all wobbly before falling over backwards.

Eventually it was time for the collection, however instead of the collection plate, envelopes were distributed with a handy BCA account number printed on them, should one wish to make a convenient transfer or set up a monthly debit payment. There was no Oral Roberts style hard sell though and we weren't threatened with being cast into a flaming lake of boiling excrement for all eternity. My envelope remained empty alas (I'm holding it now in fact) and I headed back out into the Bellagio with a view to consecrating a large curry brunch (praise him).

"God is dead," so said Mr. Nietzsche back in the 19th-century. Well, he certainly seemed to be alive down at the Jakarta City Blessing Church. What Mr. N. meant by this bold assertion though, is not that there aren’t people who still claim to believe. Rather, he meant that this belief is simply not of the type that people used to have. It is not the central pillar of our lives any more, as much as some of us might want to insist that it is. Our materialistic culture and our scientific rationalism have riddled such faith with the bullet holes of doubt and reduced it to a compartmentalised Sunday morning social club, after which the congregation retreats to the car park in order to compare their new cars (you should never try and keep up with the neighbours, by the way; as the great Quentin Crisp once said, it's better to drag them down to your level, it's much cheaper).

At the other end of the religious spectrum of course lies the Muslim suicide bomber. Are they any surer of their faith however? Perhaps, instead of rabid certainty, they are in fact trying to draw a line under their own unconscious doubts with a final, ultimate act of affirmation.

So where does that leave us? Ho hum. Well, I guess it's another week of existential dread and nihilism for me then. Happy Easter.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

2,4,6,8, Motorway

Last Sunday, I lurched awake nauseously at around 9.30, had a good cough and then reached for the mobile phone to see what drunkenly incoherent texts had been left for me in the middle of the night by friends, colleagues and lawyers wishing to serve me with writs. I sat up, narrowly avoided being sick on one of my handsome Rp.25,000 sarongs, and opened a message from my friend Dan (who likes to be known by his initials DPQ).

DPQ has only been in the country for just over a year and yet, a keen climber, he's already conquered many of Indonesia's highest peaks (when he's not out on the drink trying to conquer some of Indonesia's most flighty women). In conjunction with a friend, DPQ has set up a website which you'll find at: 'Bagging' is British slang for collecting and the site features a wealth of information and scenic photographs of what he calls 'Ribus', namely mountains with at least a 1000m elevation drop all around.

Anyway, DPQ invited me to accompany him on a jaunt down to the Cicurug area of West Java, a town not far from Bogor. From there we would hike up to Kawah Ratu, a sulphurous crater around halfway up the 2211m Gunung Salak.  I'd be doing the driving of course.

And so, around an hour later, DPQ rocked up my house in his hiking boots, carrying a plastic bag full of bottled mineral water and cans of beer, I don't know why he bothered with the water to be frank as you can't beat shot-gunning a few tins of ale as you enjoy the natural splendor of a good mountain hike and I believe all of the best hiking safety manuals recommend such an approach.

My antique motor vehicle started on only the second attempt and we soon hit the southern ring road. I almost missed the Bogor turnoff for about the seventh time in a row owing to a combination of me fiddling with the EQ settings on the car stereo as we both enjoyed the sensational sounds of our favorite 70s German rock group, Can, and the fact that signs on the toll road are slightly erratic. There are in fact signs for Bogor all the way up to the penultimate set of signs.  On the final set of signs the word Bogor is mysteriously absent.

After swerving into the correct lane at the last second, we relaxed and enjoyed the half-hour run down to the end of the toll road at Ciawi.  The going then becomes a bit trickier and the road takes on more of an impoverished, banana republic character.  As if to underline this fact, a public minivan in front of us had one of its tires explode on it about 30 seconds after we left the end of the toll road.  The sexy racing wheels and 2mm thick tyres that the driver had had fitted to his Formula One wannabe probably didn't help in this regard.

Thankfully though, the insidious tentacles of the all-purpose mini-mart have spread out of Jakarta and seemingly all over West Java and thus we could stock up on water, chocolate, beer and prophylactics at 500m intervals. Eventually we reached Cicurug, a small town famous primarily for its 24 hour gridlock of public minivans whose sole aim, given the fact that 90% of them are empty, is seemingly to serve as a blood pressure increasing reality check for Jakarta motorists attempting to get out into the countryside for a break. “Think you've escaped Jakarta?” they seem to say, “Well think again matey, you're going nowhere... very slowly.”

Eventually we turned right and drove up the extraordinarily steep 12km road to the start of the hike, trying hard not to overheat the engine, plunge off the road down a ravine or otherwise flatten half blind octogenarian women carrying bundles of firewood on their heads.  Alas, when we reached the cool climate and pine forests of the national park entrance, the classic ill fitting uniforms of the Indonesian man in charge shambled towards us and informed us that the mountain was closed.
DPQ was not happy I can tell you. “You've closed nature?” he exclaimed, apoplectic with thwarted-when-trying-to-do-something-in-Indonesia fury. “Yes sir, I'm sorry, the park is closed until the end of the month, there may be a landslide and there's poisonous gas up there and...erm... it's slippery.”“Slippery!? Of course it's slippery! I'll take the risk thanks and I believe it is my risk to take if I want.” “But Misterrrr, people have died up there.”

This is true of course, I must have read any number of stories in the paper over the years about Indonesian students who've hiked up mountains in their flip-flops with bottles of Red Bull only to come a cropper when they realize that it gets a bit chilly and treacherous up there.

And so alas we were restricted to having a little walk around the forest area near the entrance.  It was a far cry from my knee straining assault on the 3000m Gunung Gede last year but there was nothing we could do about that. I was after a nice, relaxing hike and didn't fancy trying to out run a pursuing phalanx of national park security guards all the way to the summit. And thus with heavy hearts we were forced to turn round and enter the toll road traffic jam Purgatory of the great Sunday evening return to town. Take a look at DPQ's website though, once the wet season’s over it’ll be every man for himself up there.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Beers, Steers and Queers

I'll start this week with a personal plea to any policeman who may happen to have read last week's effort. I swear I had no idea that the copy of Windows 7 that I recently installed on my new Quadcore behemoth of a computational beast was on the wrong side of the law. I bought it with the best of intentions from a handsomely stocked disc shop in broad daylight and have the receipt to prove it. Anyway, I'm very sorry officer but if you really want to clamp down on illegal activities in Jakarta then frankly, if you've got enough yellow plastic "Police Line: Do Not Enter" tape then it would be far simpler to just run a ring of the stuff around the entire city.

Let us move on though. This week I wish to address the subject of booze. Whilst many of Indonesia's more outlying provinces are in the process of adopting Sharia style prohibition, Jakarta seems to have been drunkenly lurching in the other direction of late. A real drinking culture seems to have developed in recent years, especially amongst the young. Wine bars now dot the city and Kemang is now full of middle-class youngsters hitting the bottle as if it's going out of style. I decided to investigate.

Only last week, young Sinetron ingénue, Cinta Laura, could be found in this very newspaper discussing how, "JIS (Jakarta International School) kids like to go out on a Friday night in Kemang." it was time to check it out and seeing as I'm only 17 and a half I knew that I would blend in just fine.

My first stop was a new bar called Bremer which is apparently very popular with the new breed of young paraffin guzzlers. I’d hoped to catch sight of Miss Laura emitting a Margarita fuelled rainbow yawn into the bushes before assuring me that I was her best friend in the whole world but alas it wasn’t to be. Me and my companion headed down a narrow alleyway and found ourselves in a lovely beer garden packed with drinkers.

The place reminded me of a British beer garden in fact although with fewer opportunities to get glassed in the throat for looking at someone’s girlfriend. At the bar, one could purchase a metre of ale (even beer’s gone metric) which turned out to be not one of those long, thin chemistry lab tubes but a meter long wooden rack full of about ten beer glasses. Nobody appeared to be drunk and disorderly although the staff’s bottle openers were clearly being kept very busy. I ordered up a bottle of a beer I’d never heard of before and immediately regretted it. It was a new local brew called Kuda Putih (white horse) and was the cheapest in the bar at Rp.22,000. It seemed to have been knocked up from Anker dregs collected from half drunk glasses and possibly actual horses were involved in the brewing of this tipple. 

A while later we headed down the road to a new shop called Boxmart which has ingeniously cashed in on the youngsters who like to sit outside Jakarta’s many branches of Circle K drinking beer of an evening. Boxmart is basically a Circle K with chairs, tables and even a mini stand up bar outside. We sat down and were immediately accosted by eight year old beggars. Still, at least in Jakarta the beggars and the Circle K street drinkers are separated out into two distinct groups, in contrast to many formative experiences I’ve had in London. Here at least, dishevelled middle aged men don’t stagger up to you breathing alcohol fumes in your face before inquiring in a slurred voice, “Excuse me pal, could you spare us Rp.10,000? I need a new pair of Bintang…SHOES…sorry I mean shoes”.

So why is there this apparent polarisation between increasing puritanism and prohibition in the provinces on one hand and an increasing prevalence of folk in Jakarta getting completely steampigged at every available opportunity? It's a complex problem I'd guess. However, in one sense, perhaps these two opposing behaviours are reactions to the same cultural malaise. This is namely the sense that, to quote a piece of poetry from one of my favourite bands, "The car's on fire and nobody is at the wheel."

By this I mean that there's perhaps a general, either conscious or unconscious, understanding that the planet is sleepwalking towards oblivion and that our politicians, mired in incompetency, corruption and a growing totalitarianism (and also punch-ups in Jakarta this week) completely lack the moral authority and compass to renew a globe that is spiralling out of control. Nowhere can this feeling be more acute than in Indonesia I would wager. One reaction to this creeping collective paranoia is a misguided attempt to purge society of its perceived decadence and to revert to the strictures of religious dogmas. Thus ten years after winning their freedom, many Indonesians seek to once more emasculate themselves under the lashes of Sharia's whips.

Another reaction to the sense that no one's really in charge though is to fiddle while Rome burns, blot it all out and overdose on hedonism before a sobering future arrives. Bottoms up.