Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Allah's Snack Bar

Last week, I was privileged enough to attend a PR fast breaking event, media slut that I am. And seeing that nothing, not even a single garlic roasted peanut or a grain of kerosene and sand fried rice had passed my lips for a full five hours or so, I was eager to get stuck into the buffet.

One has to respect one's hosts however and so I sat at the back of the hall patiently whilst a Muslim preacher banged on about the finer points of morality to a barely audible accompaniment of his audience’s gurgling gastric juices. Possibly the finer points of the holy man's discourse on religious ethics were lost on the congregation, who frankly looked at that point as if they'd have been happier worshipping at the first Episcopalian Church of Colonel Sanders.

Eventually however, the prayers drew to a close and it was every man for himself as the silver buffet tureens were opened and strip-mined of their contents by the faithful in attendance, who proceeded to give that Japanese guy who can eat 195 hotdogs in 10 minutes a serious run for his money.

Ramadan and Idul Fitri are the Indonesian equivalents of a Western Christmas of course. And, as with Christmas, religious observance often seems to lose out to more corporeal imperatives and the reassuring joys of over consumption. The price of staple foods rockets, the roads are even more jammed than usual and plaza food courts come to resemble UN feeding camps.

In other words, instead of meditation and introspection, this is a time of year when social and material tensions are instead exacerbated and the general hurly-burly gradually swells over the month to a deafening crescendo of firecrackers thrown at me by street urchins and Robotronic mosque PA systems who refuse to press the pause button for half an hour so I can hear myself think. Ultimately, this whole Ramadan shebang culminates in the unspeakable horror of everybody attempting to leave town simultaneously. Meditation and peace indeed. Pfft.

Perhaps though it would be enlightening if I divulged the whereabouts of this particular fast breaking gathering. For this pious little media soirée was in fact going off down in Bakrieland, just under the disturbingly monolithic new Bakrie Tower which now looms over the Kuningan area like some Kafka-esque ministry of justice.

Mr. Bakrie and his family own a huge corporate empire of course and Mr. B himself sits right at the top of the political ladder as the leader of the yellow peril, namely the Golkar party. Conflict of interest? Well possibly the victims of the Lapindo mud disaster still awaiting compensation, or those accusing the great man and his companies of massive tax evasion may think so. Alas though such conflicts of interest seem pretty common everywhere in the world. In this context, Mister B is just Dick Cheney without the John Wayne, gun slinging bravado, or a slightly less shag happy Silvio Berlusconi.

This Indonesian colossus should not be misunderestimated though, and so I decided to slip out the back door of the Ramadan rice orgy in order to investigate the Rasuna Epicentrum complex, the jewel in the Bakrie crown. When it’s eventually finished, there'll be five towers, a concert hall, an elite club, a block of exclusive suites, a shopping mall and a river walk (breathing apparatus optional).

The magnetic pull of Bakrie Tower itself proved too hard to resist and so I slip through the main entrance and made straight for the elevators. The Bakrie Tower lifts are extremely high-tech and one has to type one's destination floor into a keypad before being greeted by an anodyne, digitally over-sampled female voice upon entering the elevator itself.

I thought that I may as well go for broke and punched in 47, the top floor. After a high-speed, ear popping Star Trek ride I stepped out into the totally barren pinnacle of the Bakrie Empire. The windows had been put in but that's about it. The builders are clearly working their way up from the bottom. The views that the 47th floor affords over the city's urban cauldron are indeed spectacular though and made me theorize that perhaps something very special is being planned for the upper deck.

Maybe I was standing in the future Death Star nerve centre of the great patriarch's bid to snatch the country from the grasp of Parliament. Maybe Mr. B, the apotheosis of Indonesia’s sleaze ridden political culture, will seize control and run operations from a gleaming, high-tech, top floor base. Here, Mr. B and his henchmen will glare down on the city from its panoptic heights, ready to unleash platoons of storm troopers and laser gun death from the tower's car parks on any dissenters at the barricades. 

And if the worst comes to the worst, he’ll have an escape podule plumbed into the roof, ready to blast him into orbit so that he can rendezvous with the Bakrie Industries space station before rocketing down to his secret hollowed out volcano lair in the Pacific. Better push for that third SBY term perhaps.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Opium Wars

33 attacks on worshipping Christians in Indonesia during the first six months of this year. Quite a depressing statistic and I'm sure you've all been following the story with a mounting sense of outrage and disbelief.

Well, last Sunday I resolved to join the worshippers from Bekasi's HKBP church and their sympathisers as they raised their voices in protest up at Monas. HKBP is the church that has been turfed out of its place of worship and forced into a local field, which must make a kneeling in prayer a rather soggy affair. Not content with this humiliation however, those lovable rogues from the FPI (Islamic Defenders Front) launched an all-out attack on these poor Christians three weeks ago, hospitalising a number of them in the process.

Up at Monas, several hundred worshippers had gathered. Alas, they were hemmed into a small area on the south side of the park by the police and were not allowed to head north to the Presidential Palace, where earlier I had seen rehearsals for Independence Day in full militaristic swing, neat rows of polished epaulettes goose-stepping to some funky brass band boogie.

No, the worshippers had to content themselves with gathering around a small truck on which a Christian youth was launching into a classically Indonesian amplified diatribe, bewailing the plight of happy clappers in the good old R of I. The young orator was flanked by two members of an organisation called the PMKRI, a catholic student group apparently. These two chaps sported purple berets with yellow pom-poms on the top making them look, to my eyes at least, like a cross between Black Panther style militants and a couple of camp sippers of crème de menthe.

"Where are you SBY?!” our Christian Malcolm X censured his president. The silence has indeed been deafening as Indonesians, both Christian and Muslim, wait for some moral leadership from the kleptomaniacal carpetbaggers that rule the roost. The wheels have most definitely fallen off the Yudhoyono bandwagon over the last 12 months that's for sure.

I parleyed with some of the demonstrators, who were all sporting red ribbons around their arms as a show of solidarity. "We used to have Gus Dur and Nurcolish, but now there seems to be nobody committed to religious peace. It wasn't like this when I was a child," one woman told me. An elderly gentleman, perhaps getting nearer to the truth, explained to me that, "This tension has been under the surface for 40 years in Indonesia, but now it's out in the open."

There then followed a rousing a really quite emotional chorus of the Indonesian National anthem, as the protesters reaffirmed their Indonesian identities and the spirit of pluralism that this diverse, archipelagic nation was founded upon. The singing was passionate and committed, although not so much at the back where I was standing, but perhaps I was in the Jewish section.

I glanced over my shoulder and noted with a snigger that, viewed from this part of the park, the bulging dome of the Istiqlal mosque sits at the bottom of the main Monas phallus in exactly the position that you would expect to find something similarly spherical. I wondered if this smutty little tableau was a forewarning of Indonesia's future, a future in which minority religions are given the shaft as a new Islamic nationalist paradigm establishes itself and goes on a testosterone fuelled rampage.

I noticed a girl in a jilbab wearing a rucksack towards the rear of the demo. “Perhaps she's getting ready to press the detonator button,” I thought to myself, and then felt shocked that such an idea would pop into my head. How could I think such a thing about friendly old Indonesia? But it was too late to chastise myself, the thought had been there.

Where will the country’s descent into religious demagoguery lead if left unchecked? To its ultimate break-up and Balkanisation? Islamic orthodoxy (orthos: right, doxa: opinions) is an approach to the great religion that seeks to end debate and replace it with a set of rules and prescriptions to be followed. Debate and argument are, in this formulation of religion, now seen as an insult to the faith itself and close to heresy. To the extent that the modern ayatollahs and mullahs are informing the world that the last word is in on how the Koran should be understood, I would submit that they are being treasonous to the good book itself.

What the great religions require of their followers are intelligent engagement and interpretive agility. The teachings are inevitably in the form of metaphors, symbols, analogies and parables. You can't get at transcendent truth by pointing at things and issuing Fatwas. You do it by telling stories and by engaging people in the dance and drama of the dialogue.

Islam came after Christianity and thus guaranteed that this long debate would be revived. There was now more than one book, more than one set of prophecies, more than one prophet. Now, however, many of faith would seek to end debate rather than encourage it and we've turned full circle once again. Where is the spirit of merdeka?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Wi' Jam In

And lo the Lord spake and he said, "I will send rain on the earth for 40 days and nights," and Noah did build an Ark for every creature in the world, including a big room for poo. Very important that. Well last Saturday afternoon it didn't actually rain for 40 days and 40 nights. In fact, it only rained heavily for about 40 minutes as far as I could tell. Unfortunately though the scenes around the busy roads of South Jakarta were truly awe-inspiring in their massively traffic jammed evocation of some futuristic biblical apocalypse.

Perhaps though it is to the ancient Greeks that I have to turn in order to evoke the full, majestic, cinematic, Charlton Heston sweep of my journey from the Blok M area to my house in Mampang. It's a journey of under 4km as the crow flies however, in an epic voyage that would have broken the spirit of Odysseus himself, I fired up my vintage vehicle at 4:30 PM and finally reached my commune at 10:30 PM, a nerve shredding six hours later.

Now I never take the old girl out for a spin on weekdays, unless it's already gone 10 PM and I cycle to work every day. Alas though, weekend supermarket runs leave me vulnerable to traffic foul ups and acts of God. Last Saturday's jam was so colossal however that I believe my six-hour jaunt home has broken the Indonesian allcomers record for the ratio of distance travelled to time spent on the road.

In fact, the last time that I drove back from the beach at Pelabuhan Ratu, some 150 km away, I managed the journey in just three hours. So, effectively, I could have driven to the south coast of Java in back in the time that it took me to get home last Saturday. Was this a bloodcurdling glimpse of Jakarta's future? Will it soon be like this even when it's not raining? It's a thought that should send shivers down the spine of any city resident.

Allow me though to recount a few salient highlights of this epic voyage to you. I feel the need to unburden myself you understand, to finally let the horror of it all go and move on with my life. I first hit trouble when I turned into Kemang. The flood water was only about 2 feet deep, however I decided not to risk it and made a U-turn, aiming to try another route. Foolishly though I hadn't counted on the swollen rivers that run through the Kemang area, bearing gifts of water from the hills of Bogor.

It took me about an hour to crawl down to Pejaten, including another failed attempt to cross over into Kemang, where I was again confronted with another knee-high water world. I eventually reached the big intersection at Pejaten where a policeman warned me that there was a big flood on the road I was planning to turn up. He then proceeded to wave me in the direction of said flood. I'll honestly never understand this country, not if I live to be 300.

Anyhow, after around 20 minutes of painfully slow crawling back north, me and my fellow traffic jam renegades ground to a total stop. There was indeed an impassable flood ahead, however a U-turn was also out of the question this time as the Busway dividers had us completely penned in. Engines began to switch off and I simply got out of the car and left it in the middle of the jam before heading off to a nearby Padang restaurant for a feed.

Relief finally arrived two hours later when some local lads removed a section of the Busway dividers, allowing me and my fellow ‘jamees’ to finally escape the confines of our three laned prison. Yes, my olive twig carrying dove had finally arrived but my ark wasn't out of the woods yet.

As everywhere to my immediate west had seemingly gone Venetian, I strategized that I could reach home by doubling back through the East via Pasar Minggu and Kalibata. Bad move. The ensuing two and a half hour crawl through endless sets of jammed traffic lights gave me the impression that I'd been cursed in a manner similar to Bill Murray in the movie 'Groundhog Day'.

In the film, Murray is forced to live the same day over and over again. Eventually, reaching his nadir of despair, he commits suicide over and over again in increasingly bizarre ways, only to wake up on the same morning in the same bed after each attempt at buying the harp farm.

I also felt that a time loop was returning me to the same set of lights on the same stretch of jammed road over and over and over again. If my journey had gone on much longer I would have also probably tried to kill myself a thousand times with whatever I could find at hand inside my metal hulled hell.

As the journey wore on I imagined myself forcing the screwdriver in my glove compartment through my eye socket into my cerebellum or drinking litres of radiator fluid, only to be continually reincarnated and returned to the same set of lights on the vision of Hades that was Pasar Minggu Raya.

I was indeed starting to lose the plot a little during the final half hour of my epic voyage. At one point I seriously considered ploughing a fried rice vendor and his trolley into the asphalt for blocking my passage through a set of lights. Eventually I reached home at 10:30 PM and only stopped shaking after I'd consumed about half a bottle of gin. Never again dear readers.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Chain Reaction

Jakarta's transportation purgatory is seemingly never out of the news these days and straw clutching solutions are increasingly being tabled. Solutions such as banning motorcycles from certain roads or park and ride initiatives designed to spur people into taking the plunge on the ever more dog-eared Busway system are the latest brainstorm efforts.

As I’ve said before though, I don't believe that there is actually a solution to the increasingly desperate gridlock at this point, barring the invention of a teleportation system which, were it to be run by TransJakarta, would no doubt be rematerializing people at their destinations with their heads on back to front and the like.

The humble bicycle continues to make headway in Jakarta however and Indonesia's Bike2Work community goes from strength to strength, encouraging more and more mentally unstable individuals such as myself to head to the office under their own pedal power. Looking further a field, I was also encouraged to read last week that my home city of London has just introduced a new scheme whereby 5000 bicycles will be made available at a number of special stations around town for anyone who wants to borrow them for a short trip and a very modest fee. Perhaps London's just trying to burnish its image with the IOC ready for the 2012 Olympic Games, however a genuine bicycling revolution seems to have been underway in the UK over the last few years.

Well, not to be outdone by my homeland, I saddled up last Sunday and headed down to Bike2Work's new headquarters on Jl. KH Achmad Dahlan, which lies between Blok M and Radio Dalam in South Jakarta. The group currently has over 10,000 members in Indonesia, although this is a long way from the one million cyclists that Jakarta Governor Fauzi Bowo insists will be needed before he starts building dedicated bicycle lanes in town.

If he did show a bit of vision on this issue though there'd certainly be less pollution. In fact, if you compare calories of human energy expenditure whilst cycling with the energy present in gasoline, then the bicycle is the most efficient machine ever created and can get the equivalent of about 3000 miles per gallon. As iconic author Iris Murdoch once said, "The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart." Pure in heart perhaps although in shirt and trousers one can get awfully sweaty in this climate and that could be a serious disincentive to the considering the further bicyclification of Jakarta.

As it is, many of Jakarta's motorists, to my endless consternation, double park and cause bottlenecks just to avoid walking an extra 100m to their ultimate destinations, so what chance is there of getting them wobbling through town on two wheels? Perhaps an evening Bike2Bar scheme, when it's a little cooler, would be better? Erm…on second thoughts perhaps not, I don’t think the casualty departments could cope.

Anyway, down at the new Bike2Work HQ, a rack of top-flight machines was parked outside. I dismounted and chatted to some of the friendly gang of cyclists who were visiting the center. Friendly they may have been, however they take their cycling very seriously, a lot more seriously than I do at any rate. They even had helmets, the big softies.

One married deaf couple that I met were just stopping by in Jakarta as part of a tour around Indonesia. Then, as I was weighing up the pros and cons of being a deaf cyclist in Jakarta, a guy called Edwin came up and introduced himself to me. "Where have you just ridden from then Sir?" I enquired. "All the way from Tangerang," he replied, "but that's nothing" he continued, "me and some friends recently did a fun ride from Tangerang all the way to Bandung, that's 170 km. It took us 16 hours."

"Fun" ride ay? I guess that the vast majority of Jakartans would sooner eat a portion of rat fried rice at a roadside warung whilst being loudly serenaded by a tambourine bashing lady boy with laryngitis and an Adam's apple the size of a grapefruit than put themselves through this amount of "fun".

Fit, amateur club cyclists can indeed cover enormous distances though. In my formative years, I used to enjoy the annual London to Brighton cycle ride, during which literally tens of thousands of riders would spend the day covering the 80 odd kilometers between the capital and England's south coast.

Maybe a similar ride here would help to publicize the whole biking shebang. Jakarta to Cirebon perhaps, along the north coast road? Then back by special train? Possibly such an event would end in carnage and hundreds of juggernaut related fatalities by the end of the ride so some kind of mass burial site in Cirebon itself may have to be employed.

After half an hour, the esteemed Mister Edwin set off back to Tangerang on his metal horse while I took my leave of these strapping, tree trunk thighed kings among men and headed off to the nearest Circle K in order to fill my panniers up with Bintang. Life on the open road is a thirsty business you understand.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Down in the Park

I went in search of a little green Jakarta this week, a task that required my full attention. The chance to enjoy a few blades of grass and trees, whilst enjoying the pleasures of riding my bicycle through the odd rustic brown dog turd or two takes dedication to the cause but I like a challenge. Apparently Jakarta has a total area of green space that adds up to 9.6% of its total area. The city administration however is determined to increase this figure to 13.9% by the end of this year. I'm not quite sure how they are going to achieve this ambitious figure, possibly by demolishing a few cardboard and corrugated iron shanty towns and then using their former occupants’ dead bodies as compost, but we'll see.

And so I set out on a Sunday morning hangover shaking cycle (every pothole felt like someone trying to jam satay skewers into my eye sockets) and rolled down to the recently renovated park just behind the Jl. Barito flower and bird market near Blok M. Now this particular green area is actually of an almost decent size and features tall trees, cool shade, some rather distressed looking chickens, a few rather phallic looking sculptures (perhaps they hold Dionysian fertility rites down here after evening prayers) and a stream choked with a level of inorganic phosphate and ammonia that positively makes the eyes water. It's not a bad step towards greening Jakarta though and one can even just about get out of earshot of the city traffic (although the familiar bajaj chainsaw orchestra can still be heard through the gentle rustling of the leaves).

Next, I headed up to Lapangan Banteng, a large field just north of Monas for a stroll around Flora and Fauna Jakarta 2010, an annual plant and pet show that always makes for a pleasant afternoon. There may not be a lot of green space around the city but at least you can make your home a touch greener with a few plants and perhaps a nice fish pond, which will no doubt end up being a breeding ground for mosquitoes that will subsequently infect you and your family with dengue fever.

Nature is never easy, although it proved hard to believe that the natural world is so unremittingly bloody in tooth and claw when I came across a stall selling fluffy bunny rabbits in cages. Alas there were no tigers in cages for rich businessmen and regional government heads to buy, as many have done in the past, although I doubt I would have been able to afford one anyway. In any event, not possessing genitalia the size of a cashew nut, I'd have little use for such a dangerous psychological crutch (crutch?) rattling its cage outside my bedroom window every morning.

There was even a chicken corner down at F&F 2010, despite the fact that letting poultry run loose in the city is supposed to be illegal due to the continuing threat of bird flu. I guess this is just another one of those laws that is difficult to enforce, and thus nobody really bothers trying to anyway.

Plant wise, there were plenty of herbs on offer for one to take home and cultivate, including rosemary, lavender and ginger, although nothing that you'd want to stick inside a Rizla, more’s the pity. One stall in particular caught my eye. It was called the Vega Vertical Garden System and included a whole raft of creative ways for covering bland concrete walls with cool greenery, vines, creepers and trellises. Imagine every office block along Jl.Sudirman looking like the clubhouse at Wimbledon, marvellous.

Finally, I headed back downtown to the now empty and abandoned Taman Ria. This huge complex and lake now lies dormant, even the legendary Bugils had to vacate its original home here a couple of years back. The site would make for a superb park and a bit of urban breathing space.

Alas though we learnt recently what plans are actually in store for dear old Taman Ria. Yes, you guessed it, another bloody shopping mall will soon be firing up its gaudy neon logos for an ever consumption hungry public. No doubt they will also fill the lake in with concrete in order to provide parking space for a thousand SUVs and their McDonald's chomping occupants, or perhaps erect some kind of all in one WiFi-roller-disco-net-burger-driving-range.

It's a shame really, just at the moment it's very peaceful down there. Ultimately though, parks and green areas are about more than just having a nice lie down on a bit of grass in the sun, they also create an ecological awareness in city slickers. As people live more and more in artificial, man-made surroundings, they live in an increasing ignorance of natural processes, processes that ultimately we owe our very survival to.

Thus, I propose a new form of reverse eco-terrorism. We should infiltrate the forthcoming new Taman Ria mall's sterile concourses with seeds, soil and fungal spores in our pockets and drop them in out of the way places: down lift shafts, in car parks and ceiling partitions, and wait for a new store filled Hanging Gardens of Babylon to emerge.