Monday, November 01, 2010

When the Levee Breaks

As I sit here and scribble this in a roadside warung after a burplicious lunch of grilled chicken and bottled tea, the heavens have opened once again. Water has started to drip onto my head through the gourmet restaurant’s leaky makeshift plastic roof and, as the eatery is situated in a mini valley that straddles one of the Kemang area's muddy creeks, the tide is already reaching sock dampening levels.

Several hours earlier, on my way to work, I was forced to remove my shoes and socks at the end of my flood prone road, hitch up the old trousers and cycle through the knee-high water that still remained undrained from the previous evening’s fun and games. The water itself didn't look too appealing, much of it having no doubt recently passed through the alimentary canals of a phalanx of mustachioed Javanese gentlemen, all seeking relief by voiding their bowels into Jakarta's chemical soup as they read the car adverts in Pos Kota. Still, my pain is their gain I guess. Last Monday night was the real deal though and perhaps a harbinger of things to come over the next few months, and indeed years.

The story of Noah's Ark is a biblical classic of course, however non-Muslims among you may not be aware that Noah also features in the Muslim faith and is one of the religions five main prophets. According to the story, Noah preached to his people but apparently only a few of them converted to Islam (a number traditionally thought to be 70). God thus told Noah to knock up the Ark and commanded him to climb aboard before he smote the infidels with a big wave of water (which was presumably a tad cleaner than the rats’ urine and abandoned soft drink effluent that sloshes around Jakarta after a heavy storm).

In this context, I guess that this great deluge myth could possibly be interpreted by those pious lads down at FPI (Islamic Defenders Front) headquarters as an encouragement for them to get stuck into a few more churches. “Convert or drown!” Let's hope that they haven't read their holy book too closely.

At least Noah and his Ark full of animals wouldn't have fallen foul of Jakarta's 3-in-1 policy though. Such a huge numbers of vehicles were jammed solid last Monday night that, purely statistically speaking, there must have been some deaths on the road, or even the odd birth in the back of a taxi whilst the meter clicked round counting off the contractions.

You will all have your own tales of travel woe from last week, I'm sure. A friend of mine took six hours to get from Slipi to Kemang, a journey that took him only 20 minutes the following day. Cars were unable to pass waist high floods where I now sit and were thus completely immobile for several hours. If you’re stuck behind the wheel of your own car, you basically have to go off for dinner at this point.

On the other hand, why people sit for six hours in taxis for  journeys that would take them two hours to walk is a little harder to explain. This shows a commitment to fat arsed indolence of which I am unaware. Many is the time that I've abandoned cabs going nowhere fast on the city's teeming streets, as I come close to chewing my own arm off in frustration.

Swinging open the door of a sweaty taxi doesn't necessarily offer much relief though. In fact, it often seems as if one has simply stepped out of the taxi and into the interior of some vast city sized cab, with Jakarta's fetid, humid air, winking lights and oppressive, overcast skies resembling the inside of some giant cosmic car…and not a Bluebird either, but one of those dodgy, battered ones with the busted suspension, doctored meter and driver who looks like he just got out of jail that morning.

Is Jakarta now so hopelessly mired in its own overpopulation and creaking infrastructure that there is no way back? Are we quite literally sinking under our own weight? Perhaps so, although maybe at some crazy unconscious level we actually quite enjoy it when the city floods like this. I mean, Jakarta now resembles an endlessly looping disaster movie and people like disaster movies. Why? Not because they are scary, I'd assert. No, people like disaster movies because, at some unconscious level, they secretly crave extreme, apocalyptic events.

We desire events that can distract us from the tired daily trudge of our routine, world-weary lives, and anything that shatters the humdrum, digital isolation of our last-man, couch potato, air-conditioned existence in some sense energizes us. Some part of us actually wishes to see the well mapped out terrain of our low interest, low-calorie, 21st-century, psychically anaesthetized journeys from cradle to grave destroyed utterly in watery flood waves of unpredictability, waves that prefigure the perhaps imminent collapse our sense dulling civilization itself.

Well, I can see I've disappeared up my own philosophical fundament again, it must be the tsunamis and volcanic eruptions that are currently raining down hammer blows of divine displeasure upon us.

Well it is now Wednesday and the mother of all deluges is expected this afternoon. No doubt I'll be stuffing my shoes full of newspaper once again this evening whilst I listen to Mahler's Death in Venice theme and wait for cholera to close in on the capital. It’s a rum do alright, still, there's always TV and beer.