Saturday, January 30, 2010

Medicine Show

Last week, I was in a branch of a local, well-known chemist chain (or drugstore, as they are known to people who also use words like fender, faucet and filibuster). I was ostensibly there to stock up on my usual supplies of razor blades, corn plasters and sanitary napkins. The store in question featured a typical combination of small size and overstaffing that always sees several shop girls descending on me to ask me what I'm looking for just as I'm trying to decide whether to get a box of Ribbed or Exciter.

After selecting my party hats of choice, I looked up and noticed that, not atypically, one entire wall of the shop was filled with non-prescription pills, all claiming to do this, that and the other and to treat conditions that most of us presumably never knew that we were suffering from in the first place. As George Orwell once said, the true genius is to sell you the solution AND the problem.

Many of you may be one of a new breed of pill poppers, swayed by the claims made by this new multi-million dollar industry and persuaded that a good diet and a bit of exercise are no longer enough to maintain decent health. No, you have to pop pills and vitamins until you rattle like a half empty jar of peanuts when you walk down the street.

Fish oil, antioxidants, detox treatments, you name it, capitalism has to expand in order to survive these mountebanks of multivitamins, these pseudoscientific sellers of snake oil, have now sown seeds of paranoia in perfectly healthy people. Nobody ever became a multimillionaire by advising people to eat more fruit and vegetables and so, in our money obsessed world, decent, rigorous medical science has been debased by this confidence trick. Perhaps it all started in World War II when the British Royal Air Force put about the myth that carrots contained chemicals that enabled its pilots to see the German planes in the dark in order to disguise the fact that they had invented radar. Who knows?

Most of the world's drugs were in fact discovered and synthesized between around 1930 and 1980. Wave after wave of genuine miracles came along. However, after this low hanging fruit had been picked, things became much harder for the pharmaceutical industry and so new conditions and pathologies had to be invented that could be nixed with pre-existing drugs or quack remedies. Whoever heard of Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) or Night Eating Syndrome before about ten years ago?

Looking around the shop’s well-stocked shelves, I could see how lucrative the non-prescription pill game is, as most jars cost between Rp.150,000 and Rp.500,000. I picked up a few and had a good look at them. One of them was called 'Nutrimax Renew Life' and was priced at Rp.261,000 per jar of 60. Perhaps the stuff would be cheap at ten times the price however seeing as it claimed to offer weight loss, increased energy and libido, a more youthful appearance, lower blood pressure, more restful sleep, improved emotional mood, increased lean muscle mass and enhanced memory and vision. All in one tablet! A two-month course of these and you'd probably live forever.

The most prevalent kind of tablets in the shop though, and the latest pill popping craze, were called things like 'Brain Power' and 'Nutri Brain'. The fish oil and Omega 3 industry has tapped into our deepest fears in this ultra competitive world and fish oil tablets are currently selling by the bucket load as parents foist the things on their poor kids, hoping for improved exam results.

So what of the evidence though? What have proper, academically rigorous, double-blind medical trials involving placebo groups shown about all this stuff? Fish oil for increased IQ? No evidence. Antioxidant pills for protection against cancer? No evidence. Surely vitamin C to prevent colds? No evidence…at all.

We are seduced by the power of the pill however and prefer to avoid inconvenient truths regarding complex social problems and the real causes of poor health. We don't want to hear about the social inequalities, the employment uncertainties, the disintegrating communities and environments, the junk diets and pollution that all affect public health. Instead, the charms of curative quackery in capsule form dovetail nicely with the now naturalized, right-wing notion of individuality that has won the ideological battle over the last 30 years. "It's their fault if they're not eating their fish oil capsules and thus their children are failing at school."

Alas, Indonesia, with its traditional culture of placebo medicines and credulous underclass, doesn’t really stand much of a chance of resisting these fads that have now taken the West by storm. I however cocked a snook at the fair maidens and their cornucopia of pills and headed to the cash register with only a box of Pleasuremax™ in my trembling hand. I then scuttled off to enjoy the oldest cure of them all, namely putting my forebrain to sleep with ethyl-alcohol. Stay in the pink everyone there will be more ratty banter next week.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

How Deep Is Your Love?

Last weekend, I went zooming around the ring road all the way up to Kemayoran Expo in order to take in the Jakarta Mega Wedding Festival 2010. I should just say at this point that I'm not planning a wedding myself, be it mega or otherwise, in the near future. I'm clearly not very commited when it comes to the fairer sex and it's going to take a very special lady to keep me smiling (or a whole bunch of average ones... I mean either way it's all good).

I did however spy a number of Western gentlemen mingling in amongst the mainly ethnic Chinese attendees. They were being tugged reluctantly around the stalls and stands by their eager local fiancés.

So, what was on offer for young lovebirds to feast on down at the Jakarta Mega Wedding Festival 2010? Everything that any loving couple could possibly want from their big day out in fact: fancy rings to show off to those bitches at work, cakes the size of wardrobes, dresses for fatties, elaborate wedding tuxedos that'll make any groom look like a gay maitre d’, hideously expensive photographers who’ll airbrush your memories of that big day to a Hollywood level of blandness. Yes, there were literally a million and one ways of blowing a sizeable chunk of cash that would otherwise be better spent on a prefabricated starter home outside Bekasi that will look like a Roman ruin within five years.

Alas, the festival has now finished, so if you're planning to get hitched in the near future, then you've missed all the best deals on an aspirational wedding that will create a satisfactory illusion of wealth and grandeur for your friends to try and top.

Weddings don't come cheap though, even in Indonesia. I checked out prices for the various elements of the classic wedding and it certainly all adds up. A photographer will cost you a minimum of Rp.3,500,000 for indoors and Rp.6,000,000 for outdoors (no, I don't understand the difference either). Surely you could get a friend to take a few snaps for you in these days of powerful digital cameras? Ha, I’m such a cheapskate. We’d better take a figure of Rp.6,000,000 then.

Next up is the catering. If you wish to invite a large crowd of wedding goers, say 500 people, then the cheapest deal I could find was Rp.38,000,000 all in. Actually, I had great fun at the catering stalls as they all featured example wedding buffets for potential clients to test.
"Did the black pepper beef perform for you, Sir?"
"Not bad my good man, I think I'll try the caterers two stalls down though, just to make a comparison".
Several hours later, I was getting stuck into the antacids. The things I do for this column.

Next up comes a cake. You can save a bit of money here by renting a pretend cake several feet high for only Rp.1,000,000 and then giving your guests pieces from a more modest offering that has just been cut up behind the scenes. Honesty, that's what launching a successful marriage is all about.

Next comes a hall or hotel function room to hold the reception in. This will set you back about another Rp.20,000,000 minimum. Then there are the rings. We'd better add about Rp.30,000,000 there. Then there are the invites and the little gifts that are always given to wedding guests on the door in Indonesia. Whole selections of gift ideas were on display and ranged from clichéd and boring fans to photo frames to rather more interesting beer bottle openers.

A wedding that I attended once actually gave away shot glasses, my personal best door gift winner. Moreover, when ex-strongman Suharto's grandson got married a couple of years back, all of the guests were given a rose made from five Rp.10,000 notes with two Rp.20,000 notes for the leaves, pretty much summing up that particular family's weltanschauung. In any case, we'd better add about Rp.12,000,000 for the invites and gifts. So that leaves us with a grand total of Rp.107,000,000. This is around US$10,000, roughly half the cost of the average American wedding, although I've probably forgotten lots of other stuff. I am a man after all.

I said that the wedding Festival reflected the classic western Christianized wedding and seemed to be catering for a mainly ethnic Chinese clientele, however I find Indonesian weddings, be they Muslim or Christian, to be much of a muchness. Many that I've attended haven't been a whole heap of fun to be frank. There is usually no drinking or dancing, as we have in the West, and certainly nothing like those week-long affairs that they have in India. The bride and groom themselves have to do a whole lot of standing around looking like androgynous mannequins and generally avoiding any spontaneous displays of enjoyment.

No, no, I can't face it. It's elopement to Vegas for me if I ever get hitched to an Indonesian lass. When I tie the knot I want a quick 10 minute ceremony presided over by a dead-on-the-toilet, cheeseburger era Elvis followed by a 24-hour Jack Daniel's bender. Now that's what I call a day to remember.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Back next week chaps.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

You Will Pass Water

So we're all another year, if not a whole decade, closer to shuffling off this mortal coil. This fact was vividly brought home to me by the expanding waistlines and receding hairlines of the old friends that I hooked up with on my recent Christmas sojourn back to mother Britannia (and that was just the women).

So what does this year have in store for us then ay? I’m already having visions of my 2010 as a green snake of empty Bintang bottles stretching out in front of me towards the horizon. Not necessarily a prediction that took prodigious mental powers of deduction on my part to make but at least it has the ring of truth to it.

Other commentators have also been keen to stick their tuppences into the annual year-end free for all. A feature in last week's Globe gathered together psychics, tarot card readers and inveterate chancers of every stripe to offer up their soothsaying hokum to the credulous idiots who believe in horoscopy, tea leaf reading and that sort of thing (and there are surely many such individuals in this country).

Most of these charlatans rather hedged their bets however. This is probably due to the fact that their mystic ether surfings were being printed in a widely read newspaper. We were therefore confronted with earth shattering, gob smacking predictions such as Indonesia being subject to more natural disasters and political turmoil over the coming 12 months. A child of five could have foreseen all of that on an Etch-a-Sketch. Alas, we never seem to get a follow-up article 12 months later in order to compare the quasi mystical babble of the fortune tellers with a year's worth of hindsight do we? It's a shame that.

I don't claim to be able to bring the contours of 2010 into focus via some clairvoyant information superhighway, however there are a number of things that I believe I'm on pretty safe ground in saying definitely won't be happening during the coming year. Let's have a quick look into my crystal balls (for I have two, dear reader).

1. Avid songwriter and part-time recording artist SBY will release his sophomore effort to rapturous critical acclaim. The album will be a sprawling three CD box set of acid fried psychedelia, overlapping tribal polyrhythms and industrial samples. A bonus disc of updated, dubbed out Jimi Hendrix covers will win the Prez a support slot with Slank. Fundamentalist calls to impeach the President for his forays into the devil's music go unheeded and a Summer of Love breaks out across Java as Indonesians tune on, turn out and drop in.

2. Barack Obama finally visits Indonesia, only to meet his death somewhere in the Archipelago. Rather than an assassin's bullet however, it's a rogue bowl of soto ayam that does for our Barry. CIA watching conspiracy theorists prefer to see the death in the shadow of the Castro exploding cigar plot. Several nations mourn.

3. A crackpot inventor in Java, working round the clock in his garden shed, discovers and develops yellow energy, a process by which energy can be liberated from urine. Amazingly, scientists at Caltech verify that he's not taking the piss and our man wins the Nobel Prize for physics. Meanwhile, the country's lavatory attendants are catapulted from poverty into riches beyond the dreams of KPK suspects. Sales of Bintang rise by 7000%.

4. Investment comes to newly rebuilt Aceh in the form of US franchise Hooters, who open a chain of bars across the province, creating jobs and opportunities for many.

5. TVRI screens a 12 part series on evolution and the history of life on earth to record viewing figures. A DVD of the series is subsequently released and makes it onto the national school curriculum. Prominent Islamic clerics declare themselves proud to share their genes with orangutans and don green robes in order to hug trees. Chainsaws are declared ‘haram’.

6. Tommy Suharto opens a series of inner-city orphanages across the Archipelago. "It's time to give a little back," says Tommy, who sells his fleet of fast cars and takes to an ascetic life of meditation, abstinence, sackcloth and ashes.

7. Jakarta's ageing fleet of orange Metro Minis is replaced with shiny new Smart Buses complete with an electronic travel card ticketing system. People abandon their cars in droves.

8. Conditions are finally deemed right for the long delayed invasion of the Malaysian peninsula by the Bendera group.  Amphibious landing craft (well, rubber dinghies) are employed and a brave landing party of 20 splits into two brave fronts of ten, who then launch a daring pincer movement assault on Kuala Lumpur. An Indonesian flag can be seen fluttering atop the Petronas Twin Towers by late September.  Malaysia surrenders to its new Indonesian masters the following week.

Okay, so that's what’s probably not going to happen. I'll see you in December for a recap. In the meantime, have a super New Year one and all and remember to get plenty of sleep and to eat your greens. Let’s see if we can’t raise a smile in time for 2011.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Snow Joke

"Welcome to London Heathrow, the local time is 6.10am and the temperature outside is minus 5°C". If you're used to wringing the sweat out of your shirt every evening then awakenings rarely come ruder. I briefly considered nipping into the Airbus toilet to attempt a decapitation suicide by suction flushing my head off my shoulders but in the end, I steeled myself and trudged off the plane.

After a bleary eyed baggage retrieval in Heathrow's god-awful, dog-eared Terminal Four, I donned the ski jacket that last saw action on top of Bogor's Gunung Gede and headed out into freezing fog to meet my sister. The psychological and physiological effects of cold weather are no laughing matter of course. Those living at high latitudes often fall prey to what is now known as seasonal affective disorder (which, of course, is often referred to by the fantastic acronym SAD). It's basically taken thousands of years since the age of Hippocrates for medical science to get its head around the fact that people feel a bit down when temperatures plummet to penguin huddling levels.

Global warming all seemed a very long way away. They certainly scored an own goal by choosing Copenhagen as a venue in which to thrash out a putative carbon cap agreement. If the world's leaders had been ensconced in the Jakarta Convention Centre, urban heat island effect and a tropical climate conspiring to dampen their undergarments with perspiration as negotiations got underway, then we'd be looking at a 50% global reduction by next July.

Family back garden, North London, December 2009

God it was cold though. Bone crushing cold. The kind of cold that will wrench the spirit out of a man or forge it into steel. Returning from Southeast Asia's balmy climate to Britain's Arctic tundra certainly gave me pause for thought at any rate. Either you’re an evolutionist, in which case we came out of Africa, or you're a believer, in which case we were created wandering around some Middle Eastern Eden. In either case, the risks of hypothermia were minimal, on this point Darwin and Herr Ratzinger are surely as one.

At least the big freeze was lightened by Christmas however and I was soon eating non-stop and building up a good layer of whale blubber, the better for to combat the frost. A few days celebrating the birth of the Santa, or the time when Jesus comes down the chimney, or whatever it is, was just what the doctor ordered. In the news, the clash of civilizations may have been continuing apace, as people tried to either give firework displays on transatlantic jets or rugby tackle the Pope (were these too pranksters related perchance?). At home however, sprouts, wine and central heating made edicts on yoga, gender reassignment surgery and the tightness of ladies' trousers seem an awfully long way away.

After a few days of gastronomic abuse, it was time to don some thermal underwear and hit the streets. After heading into the centre of town, the first thing that I noticed upon disembarking from Tottenham Court Road tube station was how much London's ERP (electronic road pricing) scheme has reduced the amount of traffic in the centre of the capital.

Alas, the continuing social status conferred upon Jakarta's car owners will happily see them sitting in jams for hours, pumping their Blackberries like 11-year-old GameBoy addicts, rather than try any public transportation option. I reckon though that a Jakarta ERP scheme set at around Rp.50,000 per day would improve traffic flows and force people onto the busway system, where they can get groped by total strangers and fall arse over tip on the shoddily constructed aluminium walkways.

At least though, Indonesia remains uncursed by the CCTV, health and safety Nazi mentality that has emasculated the UK over the last decade. In Jakarta, one is free to down a bottle of whisky whilst driving around town, ride one's motorcycle along the pavement at full speed, bathe in faecal rivers, jump around on refuse tips and trash houses of worship, should one so desire. The developed world's ever expanding list of social pathologies is a different matter however.

Take smoking, for example. Head down to an English pub these days with a few friends and suddenly half of them are going on a little jolly trip outside in order to spark up and shiver in the snow, leaving their less interesting, non-smoking companions, such as myself, to look after their coats and bloody iPods. It's drink or smoke folks, but not both simultaneously, very dangerous that is.

Moreover, under new European Union regulations, cigarettes are no longer allowed to be called either, 'Light' or 'Mild' lest people think that they are somehow better for you. 'Smooth' or 'Refined' now the legally required nomenclature that must be employed to avoid Orwellian thought crime. If Dji Sam Soe were available over here they'd probably have to be sold under the name, Emphysema.

I guess I should make the most of my trip over here however and drink as much cider as I can before heading back to the Big Durian to thaw out. Happy New Decade readers and may you be blessed with many strong sons.