Monday, May 31, 2010

Everything Counts in Large Amounts

It's census month in Indonesia folks, time for the decennial counting up of heads. Last time around, at the turn of the millennium, a population of 205.1 million was tallied up. Moreover, despite the fact that the island of Java represents a mere 6.6% of the country's land mass, a full 60% of this impressive figure was found to be hunkering down here, living, studying, working, not working, embezzling each other's money and burning down each other's houses of worship, as well as trying to push this 200 plus million figure to even greater heights via the time-honoured method.

God alone knows what the score will tot up to this time around when the final whistle blows on June 30th but my personal suggestion would be to mould a greater proportion of the latex currently being harvested from Indonesia’s many rubber plantations into a few million vulcanised, bulletproof Peter wrappers. These would be distributed free at every minimart in the country. If not, the population tally could be nudging towards the critical red end of the totalizer when it comes to 2020's rollcall.

This time around, an amazing 700,000 census takers are currently pacing the streets, the better to map out Indonesia's education, poverty, fertility and employment demographics. The results will then be meticulously tabulated, printed out in neat columns and starchy official pamphlets before being presented to the nation's high ranking civil servants and politicians, who will then make paper hats out of them or use them to swat mosquitoes with.

In our house, a poorly photocopied piece of A4 paper from our local census squad lay untouched on our communal dining table for a whole week until last Sunday. The proper census is supposed to consist of 43 detailed and probing questions, however this rather tatty sheet merely demanded that we fill in our names, places and dates of birth, education levels, religions, jobs and marital statuses. This was seemingly still too much for us indolent slackers though.

And so it was that last Sunday morning I looked out of the window at about lunchtime to see who was rattling our gate only to be confronted by two sweet young schoolgirls. "Are you expecting company?" I asked my housemate. After mincing to the gate in my slinky Ade Rai signature sarong, I learned that the two young ladies in question had come to collect our piece of paper.

"Erm... we haven't filled it in yet my little lovelettes," I confessed, "but won't you step into our oubliette or faites commes chez vous whilst we go and look for a pen? By the way you seem a little young to be doing this."
"Yes, we are still at school, the RT sent us round." Mental note to self, send the RT an Idul Fitri card this year.

And so I sat down, pen in hand, and tried to remember my own name. Then came my date of birth (December 3rd 1992: I'm 17 and a half you understand). We were doing just fine with the other questions too until we came to the religion column. Alas all three of us in the house are card-carrying atheists and so I put three dashes against our names and handed the form back to one of the young census takers. "You haven't filled in the religion column Mister."
"Yes, none of us follows a religion."

There then followed an earnest furrowing of brows and the familiar does-not-compute face that I've encountered many times previously here upon professing to not believing in old beard face. Thankfully, the young lady thought better of trying to open up a philosophy 101 Pandora's box in our living room and she and her mate quickly scurried off instead.

One is often required to divulge one's religious affiliations on all manner of official forms in Indonesia I've noticed. Even filling in a warranty card for a new TV set seems to require an affirmation of faith. "You say your TV’s broken down Sir? Well, I see from your details that you're a Catholic so I will send a technician round with some rosary beads to exorcise the set for you. Although please note Sir that this guarantee is invalidated if you don't go to confession at least twice a month and tell an official Toshiba priest exactly what kind of DVDs you've been watching."

As for the census itself, I don't have the greatest confidence in its statistical accuracy to be frank. Last week, for example, the Globe reported that census takers in Riau have concluded that a woman they’d met on their travels is 145 years old. "She has a 98 year old younger sister and daughter aged over 70 years," said Dwi, one of the census takers. You do the maths. This is one serious super granny. I mean we learned this week that American scientist Craig Venter has started producing synthetic genomes that could alter the very destiny of life on Earth. He should really get himself down to Riau though and take a few blood samples of this antediluvian old mare. That's some serious DNA she's got going on there.

So what will the final number be? 220 million? 230 million? Who knows? Where Java is concerned though, the old breeding like rabbits cliché hardly covers it as far as I can see. The population here perhaps more closely resembles a process of exponential cellular division with Indonesia's most populous island as some vast Petri dish overseen by a cosmic Craig Venter-esque divinity, who occasionally tosses a bird flu, swine flu or HIV virus into the great experiment in order to gauge their effects on the exploding masses. Now why can't I put that religion on my TV warranty card?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Let Me Stand Next to Your Fire

Heading to the island immediately east of Java is probably the most popular getaway from town but I'd like to offer a trip westward to Sumatra as my constructive suggestion of the week. Last weekend I hit the Jakarta - Merak toll road and steamed to the ferry port at full speed (although I was occasionally held up by lumbering juggernauts that couldn’t seem to top a brisk walking speed).

At Merak, I drove onto one of the ferries that leave every half an hour, 24 hours a day and strolled up onto the deck to take the air. This was at night alas, however my return ferry from Bakauheni to Merak at seven in the morning sailed out of a very picturesque harbour past several outlying islands as the sun beat down on me on my deck chair with my knotted handkerchief on my head.

Most Indonesians prefer to stay out of the sun in the ship’s foetid, rusting bowels however, consuming their own bodyweights in peanuts and watching karaoke DVDs in the so-called, "lounge", and seeing as they were mainly swarthy, piss taking, truck driving types, this suited me just fine.

Anyway, back to the outward journey, half an hour from Bakauheni, you’ll find the sleepy seaside town of Kalianda, which sports some lovely deserted white sand beaches and a nearby mountain, the 1000m plus peak of Gunung Rajabasa. Generally, it's a pleasant, typical Indonesian seaside town and indicative of how the mandarins in charge of tourism here should be thinking outside the box in their efforts to get people to places like this. Mind you, this presupposes the ability to think inside the box, which is a big assumption admittedly.

I was on a different mission however and headed to the colourful flotilla of fishing vessels at the small harbour on the outskirts of town in order to rent a boat to take me to Indonesia's most famous volcanic peak, the legendary Krakatau. I soon boarded a mini fishing launch with a sewing machine for an outboard motor and we started chugging out over the waves. We stopped briefly at Pulau Sebesi, one of the numerous islands on the four and a half hour voyage to Krakatau and then continued on.

A huge storm blew up and drenched us after half an hour. Water also got into the engine, causing it to grind to a halt until the downpour eased. So there I was, sitting in a glorified canoe drifting miles from anywhere with the rain beating down on me. A precious moment indeed.

Eventually, we arrived on the black sands of Anak Krakatau (Child of Krakatau), the junior volcano that eventually emerged from the depths of the ocean in 1927 after the original beast had exploded into a billion pieces in 1883. The 1883 eruption created a tsunami that killed 30,000 people, sent out a shock wave that circled the Earth seven times and has now passed into global folklore of course.

The island’s security guard, a wizened old soul who looked as if he’d arrived on the scene around the time of the 1883 eruption, informed me that it's perfectly okay to camp on the beaches when the volcano is not active. When it is active however, the beach of a neighbouring island, about 700m away, fills with hippies and TV reporters who watch the light show all night long.

The thick jungle that fringes the picturesque beaches of Anak Krakatau only extends back about 100m before petering out into the ashen slopes of the still smouldering volcano. We climbed up to the last reachable point, about 50m below the ominous, smoking, sulphurous summit and enjoyed the quite breathtaking views of both the volcano itself and the surrounding oceans and islands.

I notice a smashed seismograph near to where I stood. It was a twisted heap of rusting metal and broken glass with a huge volcano ejected boulder lying slap bang in the middle of it. I guess that this shattered device, along with the recent Europe wide volcano air travel debacle, could be said to symbolise how mankind, for all his industry, technology and vitamin enriched, quadcore hubris, is still at the mercy of the larger forces of nature.

In fact, I recently became aware of a fascinating theory that links the fate of our species very closely with volcanic activity. The 1883 Krakatau eruption, huge as it was, was ultimately peanuts in comparison with some of the mega volcano super eruptions that have occurred throughout geological history. The most recent of these super eruptions spewed forth from the massive volcano crater that now holds the enormous Lake Toba in Sumatra around 70,000 years ago.

This eruption is described by scientists as being, "Mega colossal," and is thought to have caused a decade-long volcanic winter, as well as a 1000 year long, "Cooling episode," over the entire planet. By coincidence, geneticists have discovered that our species, already flourishing at this point, hit a, "Population bottleneck," around (drum roll please) 70,000 years ago.

The theory is that the Toba eruption proved so utterly catastrophic to the environment that humanity was reduced to maybe a couple of thousand people before the population re-expanded many years later. DNA evidence shows that we are all much more closely related to each other that we should be, given the age of our species.

So there you have it. We really are all brothers and sisters, and it's all thanks to Indonesia!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Wherever I Lay My Hat

My piece on a weird and wonderful house in Bekasi has come out. Check out the amazing slide show pics of this batty dwelling.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

'Bu Cackey

Islamic lowest common denominator types the FPI have recently threatened to raid screenings of the local production Menculik Miyabi (Kidnapping Miyabi). The source of their Mohammedan ire, is the film’s star, namely one Maria Ozawa a.k.a. Miyabi, a Japanese porn starlet of some repute, or so I'm told (ahem).

The movie opened last week and so I duly trotted off to Blok M Square and worked my way up through seven floors of cut-price tat to the Studio 21 theatre at the top. There was no sign of any wispy bearded, white robed types hanging around, ready to burst into the movie and tear up the cheap seats though. Alas I’d been hoping to get some relief from what I was certain would be about as enjoyable a cinematic experience as John Travolta's epic Scientology failure, Battlefield Earth dubbed into Serbo-Croat.

There was a decent crowd milling around though and when I entered theatre five and took my seat, the place seemed to be almost full. The audience even included a girl sitting next to me in an Islamic jilbab (veil). As usual, there's no surer way of guaranteeing the success of a movie or record than banning it. You ask the Sex Pistols.

As the credits rolled and the film got underway, I felt confident that the FPI would not burst in and turn Blok M Square into the Swat Valley. On the other hand though, Menculik Miyabi turned out to be so unspeakably dreadful, so utterly insulting to the intelligence of a baboon with Alzheimer’s, that I feared that the dark Lord Lucifer himself might appear in an explosive flash of sulphur, singeing the huge popcorn boxes being eagerly clutched in the first three rows. "Ha ha hah," he would cackle demonically, "With this movie I now see that human culture has reached its ultimate nadir and that all of mankind's noble intentions have come to nothing. And so the gateway from the underworld has now been blown open and now my dark, ten million year reign of terror begins."

Billed as a comedy, Menculik Miyabi is hardly a biting, post-modern satire on Jakarta's urban malaise. In fact, it makes Animal House look like Annie Hall. The audience were hardly rolling in the aisles during the performance and a pall of near terminal enervation seemed to descend on rows A to M during the movie's final, funny-as-cancer denouement.

Miss Miyabi's part in this whole sorry debacle has been pared down to an absolute minimum, owing to the cancellation of her Jakarta scenes which were nixed after threats of airport assault by the FPI goon squad. As for the rest of the third division Sinetron cast, we were treated to the usual Indonesian Three Stooges motif as well as the stereotypical nerd in thick rimmed glasses who finally gets the girl after facing down the campus bully.

The full gamut of slapstick, double entendre, and more frequently single entendre, stiffy, titty and vomit gags were given the once over by the assembled thespians, who clearly couldn't act their way out of a Hero shopping bag if it was dangled off the top of Monas. The movie also sports a rather unpleasant subtext about it being okay to kidnap women.

Was this pornography though? Not unless you situate yourself at the far Bin Laden end of the moral spectrum. Aesthetic pornography perhaps. As for the FPI themselves, clearly the police have never been much interested in curbing their high jinks and thus the rise of Islamo-fascism (a word with perhaps a greater ring of authenticity to it than Islamophobia) grows apace in this country. I think it's fair to ask though whether it’s more morally corrupting to laugh at a bit of smutty innuendo, or to work for an organisation whose boss is, quite literally, above the law.

The Indonesian mindset seems to me to be, in some ways, not well-suited to the ascetic rigours of hardcore monotheism, and I mean that as a great compliment. Just under the surface, people here seem to enjoy the sensual, Epicurean pleasures of food and sex and in this respect perhaps more closely resemble that other great archipelagic civilisation, the ancient Greeks. As long as you're not harming another person, then enjoy and celebrate life and sexuality.

It's only when monotheism comes along that we get hypocritical words of divine love and piety masking what is, in fact, repressed jealousy and hatred of those who would do what you would too if you were brave enough. And of course the flipside of this is the emotion that one feels if one actually does go out and enjoys the forbidden sexual side of one's nature, namely guilt and self hatred. I guess that religion though is a good find for those who are sexually repressed, and that's always been true.

The result of all this is that waves of love, compassion and life’s joy are hardly radiating from the FPI, or even the NU. So folks, my advice is to make hay while the sun shines, don't waste any of your precious time on execrable movies, remember to clean your teeth and have a happy Hellenic weekend.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Jungle Massive

This week, I managed to skip Jakarta's 21st century heart of darkness and headed into the jungles of Borneo for a few days to do a Lord Jim. In Conrad's novel, Lord Jim, a disgraced young seaman, heads into the jungle in order to live with the Dayaks and so I rocked up in Palangkaraya in central Kalimantan with a bag full of mosquito repellent and amusing hats.

Palangkaraya is a small city, however it received a lot of attention from Sukarno. Indonesia's first president got the Russians to build some nice, wide boulevards around town when he was flirting with the red menace and also had a fancy woman shacked up here it a rather tasteless pied-a-terre. Sukarno even considered making Palangkaraya the Indonesian capital at one point. 

Sukarno's successor Suharto, rather hubristically decided to make Indonesia self-sufficient in rice by draining the peat swamps in the huge rainforests and jungles that lie beyond the city and starting a huge program of planting. Not only did the rice not materialize, due to the peat soil being too acidic for the stuff to grow in, but Indonesia's current status as the world's third largest producer of greenhouse gases is largely due to these dried out swamps releasing their previously locked in carbon into the atmosphere. In the words of that intellectual colossus, Homer Simpson, "Doh!"

As well as the rice disaster, rampant deforestation, slash and burn agriculture, forest fires, palm oil plantations and a rapidly dwindling orangutan population have led to a veritable army of tree hugging, granola munchers to descend on the area in order to hold conferences and to try and engage communities in and around the rainforests in conservation efforts.

I myself haven't burnt down any significant area of forest for many years now and often hold in any unpleasant bouts of digestive greenhouse gas after an enjoyable Nasi Padang session, however I wasn't in town to jam with either Sting, Bono or Bob Geldof. I was going to ford upstream into the jungle on a pleasant three day riverboat cruise.

For the past few years, a couple of lovely ladies, Lorna Dowson-Collins and Gaye Thavisin, have run riverboat eco-tours from Palangkaraya up into the lush jungles of Borneo. The pair have built a huge cruising boat, which can house groups of up to 10, and on the spacious top deck of which tourists can recline in comfort, enjoy prawns the size of canoes and spy on the orangutans at the water's edge as they muck about and exhibit appalling table manners.

The rivers themselves are the quintessential jungle waterways. As calm as mirrors and between 50 and hundred meters in width, they meander through lush protected forests with only the occasional illegal gold mining operation or chainsaw buzzing in the distance to remind one of the dangers that this ancient environment now faces. The tour is an educational one and has previously been enjoyed by various European and Australian Parliamentary delegations, as well as the Prince of Denmark, who apparently had a whale of a time.

We made a brief stop at an orangutan rehabilitation centre at one point and learnt that some of these hairy chaps are in a very sad state indeed. Orphaned and suffering from malaria and/or flu, the centre nurses them back to health and gradually releases them back into the wild. It's becoming a losing battle however as there are now more orangutans coming in than are going out.

The cruise itself is magnificent though and takes one through idyllic areas of primary rainforest as yet completely unspoiled by man and his vociferous appetite for destroying things and soiling his nest. Mind you, I was still able to get a mobile phone signal for the entire duration of the trip. The heart of darkness is fully wired these days you understand. It can only be a matter of time before those orangutans that I spied at the river's edge are downloading banana themed wallpapers onto their Blackberries or texting each other across the jungle, "Found sum coconuts, c u in 10 minutes. GOL" (that's "Grunting out loud").

If you’re up for a cruise like this then take a look at: An interesting one will be taking place between May 20th and May 23rd in fact. If you find the Jakarta Highland Gathering a bit passé then the Isen Mulang Cruise will take you to the traditional Dayak games of the same name. One of the events is a game of soccer played with a burning coconut. Silly sods.

Meanwhile, in terms of saving this ancient environment, if you're not willing to chain yourself to a tree the Greenpeace way, then consumer choice is perhaps your best weapon. Don't eat the baso in East Java that locals were recently found making from kidnapped monkeys. Another good one to avoid would-be palm oil perhaps, which is apparently present in 10% of all supermarket products. Giving up Indonesia's Blue Band palm margarine shouldn't be too difficult for Westerners though, seeing as the stuff tastes like clarified goat bile. Mind you, the less of the stuff that's eaten, the more that can be used as chainsaw lubricant. Anyway, let's all sit in a circle now and sing, "We shall overcome."

Monday, May 03, 2010

Street Fighting Men

Over the last month, Indonesia has twice erupted into an orgy of setting fire to things and slicing and dicing people with primitive farming equipment. Different these two incidents may superficially seem to be, however perhaps there are common elements in the root causes. Certainly, the location of both of these conflagrations was the same, namely down at the docks.

Up at Tanjung Priok, on the capital's North coast, locals rioted over a rumour that authorities were planning to relocate the tomb of Mbah Priok, a Betawi Muslim icon. Barely a week later, an Indian boss up in Batam was alleged to have said that Indonesians were stupid. This provoked more riots, which didn't really serve to provide much of a counter thesis to our hapless subcontinental's damning assessment.

Docks have always been lively areas of course. The stereotypical image of the docker, in the West at least, is that of a weather-beaten, tattooed muscleman who's as hard as nails and who can drink a pint of beer in one and a half seconds before then eating the glass. Docks have also, historically, been great crucibles of activity responsible for fomenting social and labour struggles. Examples abound. It was at the Gdansk Shipyard in Poland that the Solidarity movement became the first non-Communist trade union in the Soviet Eastern Bloc, sowing seeds that eventually led to the opening of the Iron Curtain. In my home, the UK, the world's oldest democracy, the London Dock Strike in 1889 ended in victory for the strikers and is considered a milestone in the development of the British labour movement.

So what exactly is going on? Are these two riots manifestations of a deep and growing unrest within Indonesian society? Are the docks in fact coalmines and the workers and communities down there their canaries, singing a song of impending doom? Are these coastal zones an early warning system, alerting us to the possibility of another 1998 style inland tsunami of rape, murder and pillage? This is a complex question of course and one that I don't feel particularly qualified to answer. It seems clear to me though that the image of the country's politicians, judiciary, police and civil service is close to an all-time low in the eyes of the public just at the moment.

Anyway campers, I decided to head up to Tanjung Priok last weekend in order to survey the wreckage and to hopefully avoid getting my head kicked in by either Muslims, dockers, Muslim dockers or any combination of the three. The huge elevated East Jakarta toll road up to the coast affords the casual motorist some great views of the urban sprawl below. Jakarta's critical mass of concrete and metal stretches as far as the eye can see, squatting beneath brooding clouds of premium gasoline fumes and the smoke from 5 million heavily Bogarted kretek cigarettes.

As you get towards Tanjung Priok itself, the traffic starts to peter out and the only vehicles left on the road are lumbering trucks and petrol tanks ploughing their own dusty furrow up towards the coast. Close to the docks, I saw various dollar-a-day types emerge from God knows where with plastic bags in their grubby hands. They were trying to tap a few drops of petrol from each of the passing tankers. Presumably they then sell it on to motorcyclists, either to put in their fuel tanks or to mix with Krating Daeng for a great, if potentially fatal, buzz.

Tanjung Priok is a truly enormous place. The huge, sprawling dock stretches down the coast for several kilometres. Inside the complex, I came across the mosque at the epicentre of this month's love in. Lots of behatted and robed types were entering and leaving the mosque area, no doubt in order to pray and to pay their respects at the great Mr. Priok's tomb.

I shuffled off in the other direction though for a chat with some of the dock’s security guards who were chilling out and enjoying a few soft drinks (and not beer). They proved to be very friendly and, after the usual ‘Hello Mister’s and questions about the relative merits of Chelsea and Manchester United, they told me about the riots and showed me a burnt out car and the windows of their little office which had been smashed in the melee. The broken glass still lay shattered on the asphalt although the windows have already been replaced (to be smashed again at a later date no doubt).

One of the guards, a native of Flores, told me that he had been working in the Kuta area of Bali when the bombs had gone off in 2002. Now he's had to watch people dying all over again, however he's retained his natural Indonesian ebullience.

"Do you think this will happen again?"
"Perhaps Mister, the Satpol [public order officials] are not liked by the people."
"Would you like to join the revolution? Or even a nice dock workers labour organisation?"
"No, no, that would cause terrible trouble."

Well, you've just had your trouble, mate. Today your windows, tomorrow your face perhaps. Labour struggles are indeed dangerous affairs though and if Indonesia's lower classes are up for it then many heads will be kicked in as the workforce struggles against the invidious multi-headed Hydra of outsourcing, low wages and general despair. Anyway folks, let’s look on the bright side. It’s Labor Day today, so I'll see you down the docks later okay? I'll be the one in the Che Guevara T-shirt and the PDI-P dinner dance cufflinks.