Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Desert of the Reel

It's another visit Indonesia year and once again time to attempt to up the mediocre number of tourists visiting the country. Alas however Garuda seems to have hit something of a rough patch over the past week or so, with flights being cancelled left, right and centre. Apparently software gremlins are to blame, although this probably means that the airline’s ground staff crashed its servers through excessive Facebook usage.

On the plus side however, Indonesia may be the recipient of an unexpected tourism bonus on the back of the Hollywood adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, a novel for a brave, new world forged under the jackbooted dictatorship of Oprah Winfrey.

The movie stars the estimable talents of Julia Roberts of course. No doubt she was sent the script, read the title and just flipped. A friend of mine, who actually lives in Bali where the story was partly based and shot, was dragged by his Indonesian Mrs. along to see Eat, Pray, Love recently and described it as a, "Catatonically dull two and a half hour long tampon commercial." A quick capsule review that certainly pulls no punches to be sure.

Back here in Jakarta, I've noticed a few rather half-hearted attempts by businesses to cash in on the movie, as Hollywood's retina singeing arc light dazzle is trained upon Indonesia. One pizza restaurant that I passed recently was offering, Eat, Pray, Lunch. Doh.

Anyway, Eat, Pray, Love is about one woman's search for God alone knows what, and we soon see Julia indulging in some seriously Epicurean pigging out in Italy, attempting to unclog her Western existential constipation through Indian mysticism, and finally achieving a synthesis of the two in the form of a kind of vapid spiritual materialism over in Bali’s spa Nirvana (whilst enjoying plenty of sexy romps with a rather studly Javier Bardem).

This restless trying on of different hats feels like the classic post modern malaise. All surface and little substance. My three months as a bon viveur in Italy (whilst still emerging svelte at the end of it), my three months praying at an ashram in India (and ultimately absorbing a similar lack of spiritual calories). None of it felt, none of it part of affect, all of it a game, a fad.

We live in a hyperreal world though and are now so used to having our personalities synthesised and destabilised through viewing life as images projected via the infinite dream machine of the omnipresent camera lens that, in this case at least, we've reached a spooky level of second order identity displacement. Specifically, we have reached the realm of Jakarta restaurants offering Eat, Pray, Lunch and Indonesian housewives trying to be Julia Roberts as she tries to be Indonesian. Now that's just weird.

However, in a no doubt vain attempt to deprive the possibly quite rich Julia Roberts of some money, I bought a locally pirated copy of Eat, Pray, Love for Rp.7000 recently, a purchase that involved a similar level of embarrassed furtiveness as a teenager buying his first packet of condoms. It was time to get myself chick flicked up.

The movie opens in Bali in fact, where Julia meets fortune teller Ketut Liyer, whom she later describes as looking like Yoda (the little green man from Star Wars). Personally I didn't think this boded well for the film's multicultural pretensions, but I pressed on. After an hour and a half detour through New York, Italy and India, we eventually wash up on the shores of Bali again. Although I was having to prop my eyelids open with matchsticks at this point and made a mental note to put the disc aside later for possible use as a homoeopathic, drug-free remedy for my infrequent bouts of insomnia. Roberts' Nietzschian reinvention of the self was losing something in the translation that was for sure.

Anyway, our Julia is soon necking jamu, re-encountering Yoda and hooking up with the talented Indonesian acting legend, Christine Hakim (who could probably act Julia under the table to be honest, and I'd highly recommend her Daun di Atas Bantal as a great example of what Indonesian cinema can be when it puts his mind to the task). Bardem turns in a quite jolly performance as an Air Supply and Phil Collins loving Lothario, and in fact his Brazilian moves and samba mix tapes make it seem as if we've flown to Rio instead of the Island of the Gods.

Alas however, Bardem gives our Julia a dose of Sao Paolo fever after two weeks of the couple banging away like a gamelan player after too many cups of Java. Hakim clears up Julia's bladder infection with more Jamu and Roberts then repays the favour by having a whip round of her cashed up chums in New York via e-mail. She eventually raises enough to buy Hakim's character a new house. Nice.

The couple then split up, Yoda dispenses a few Buddhist bumper sticker type aphorisms, Julia and Bardem reunite, everyone reaches for the Oprah Winfrey signature Kleenex, stumbles out the exit door, has a quick piss followed by fillet of fish and then heads for home. The end.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

As ash and smoke continue to rain down upon the poor communities surrounding the still erupting Merapi in Central Java, turning their villages into one vast pub carpet, I thought that it might be a good idea to get a look at one of these smokers up close. In fact, last weekend I joined up with the ever outbound boys and girls from Java Lava, Jakarta's premier expatriate hiking club (check them out on the Interwebs) in order to tramp through the highlands north of Bandung, finishing up at the smoking volcano crater of the legendary Tangkuban Perahu.

Indonesia is chock full of volcanoes of course, around 200 of which are still active, which is more than can be found in any other country on earth. Indonesia is a land of smoke for reasons other than magma flows and plate tectonics however. Superannuated vehicles traverse its highways belching out eye stinging clouds of all hues; slash and burn agricultural practices get out of hand and destroy huge swathes of forests, creating thick smogs which blanket not just Indonesia but also neighbouring countries; and of course most of the general population (or the men anyway) smoke packet after packet of the kind of industrial strength clove cigarettes that would have the Marlboro man expiring on his horse before he reached the comfort of his ranch. Spark up and then spark out would seem to be the general way of things here, and the humid weather only serves to exacerbate the general smokiness.

In this context, Merapi for me symbolises a giant Indonesian lung, coughing up phlegm balls of lava, rocks and ash from its emphysema stricken magma chambers, as it tries to clear its airways of tropical pollution. Anyway, waking up at a delightful 5 AM last Saturday morning, we rented some angkots (public transportation minivans) which took us up to the North of town for the start of our hike.

My Indonesia/smoke thesis was proved right from the off however as the minivan that I was sitting in had had one of those 130 dB boy racer exhaust systems fitted to it. Alas however, it didn't seem to have been fitted very well as the passenger compartment soon filled with exhaust fumes and presumably no small amount of carbon monoxide. In fact, by the time we reached the start of the hike, I was starting to feel rather drowsy. Another few kilometres and they would have been stretchering us out and into an ambulance (hopefully one without a racing exhaust).

The walk itself proved to be stirring stuff however, and we tramped through the cool, fresh air of the West Javanese highlands. We walked through kilometres of tea plantations and even stopped at a tea factory to see how they processed the stuff. Java is primarily known around the world for its coffee of course, however the tea grown here is also supposed to be of a very high quality.

Eventually, we started trudging up the moody slopes of Tangkuban Perahu itself, eventually reaching the smouldering crater, which is about a kilometre across and has a brackish lake sloshing about in its depths. It’s quite beautiful in fact and we breathed in the sulphurous air whilst taking memory cards full of snaps (and in my case having a well earned Bintang).

This is a land of smoke and air pollution for sure though, despite a recent report in the Globe which said that the Philippine-based Clear Air Initiative Asia Center have given Jakarta's air a clean bill of health. One wonders if they actually even came here. Unfortunately for the smokers among us though, it's usually them that seem to bear the brunt of any urban air pollution initiatives, despite the fact that motor vehicles, power stations, industrial pollution and the burning of garbage totally eclipses their feeble smoke signals by several orders of magnitude.

Thankfully for the butt suckers though, things aren't as bad here as they are in squeaky-clean Singapore. In fact, the last time I stayed at a hotel there, the information sheet in my room said something like, "Dear guest, to guarantee that you will fully enjoy your stay with us, this hotel is totally smoke-free. For any infringement of this regulation, you will be charged $200." If you take this statement literally, then it seems that one is to be punished for refusing to fully enjoy one’s stay. Kind of sums up modern life for me in my darkest moments, banging our heads on the wall insisting that we are happy whilst popping anti-depressants by the cartload. Give me a Marlboro Light any day.

Also, this country seems to be free of the horrible pictures of birth defects and destroyed lungs that can be now found on cigarette packets elsewhere in the world. Such health warnings are becoming just a little bit over the top in my view. Actually, I can remember the author Kurt Vonnegut, in an interview towards the end of his life, saying that he was planning on suing Philip Morris. "They promised to kill me, it clearly says on the health warnings on their packets. Well, I'm 83 years old and they haven't done it." Hopefully, Merapi's victims will soon be able to return home and enjoy a nice cool packet of Gudang Garams. Here's to a long life and rude health.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Down the Dark Streets, the Houses Looked the Same

In a slightly more outrĂ© move for Metro Madness, a friend and I endeavoured to walk to the city of Palankaraya on the island of Borneo from Jakarta last weekend. This obviously posed one rather intractable problem for us, namely the sea. So before you diagnose me as being in the pathological grip of some delusional, messianic walk-on-water complex, perhaps I’d better back up a little and explain the origin of this perhaps rather harebrained scheme.

The concept of psychogeography was first developed in the fifties by the theorist Guy Debord as, "The study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals." Another definition of psychogeography is, "A whole toy box full of playful inventive strategies for exploring cities. Just about anything that takes pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape."

More recently, one of my favourite writers, Will Self, a darkly comic spinner of surreal urban dramas, revived the concept (and you can find him explaining the whole thing on Authors@Google on Youtube). Self notes how modern, urban life increasingly isolates us on small islands of existence surrounding home, office, pub, etc. And thus we don't have a feel for our urban geography at a visceral, gut (and leg) level, as travel between these isolated urban islands is facilitated passively by means of motorized transportation only invented over the last century or so. Thus no sense of geography or scale are imprinted as mental maps in our brains by our bodies via processes evolved over millions of years.

Self therefore resolved to walk from London to New York, i.e. he walked from his house in south London to Heathrow airport, flew to New York, and then continued his walk from JFK airport to a downtown hotel. The physically tiring effects of the walk, coupled with the passive, geographically isolated downtime spent on the plane, apparently tricked his brain into believing that he had traversed a continuous landmass.

With me so far? So, always a sucker for essentially ludicrous ideas that have been dressed up in a patina of intellectual theorizing, my chum Dan and I set out from Jakarta's street of broken dreams, Jalan Jaksa, just south of Monas, at 2 AM last Friday night and began walking to Soekarno-Hatta airport in order to catch a midday flight. We had elected not to tramp down the airport toll road but instead headed through town towards Jl. Daan Mogot, which we followed until Kelideres bus station before hanging a sharp right onto a smaller road leading to the airport.

The early part of the slog was essentially a night hike, always a strangely haunting experience, punctuated by stops in petrol stations to buy bottles of ale (it was Friday night after all) and by females of dubious character spilling out of Daan Mogot's even more disreputable karaoke joints at about 4 AM. Alas, we had a flight to catch and so couldn't really stop for a curb side knee trembler.

Dawn was soon upon us and we two geographical psychos took full measure of our surroundings. This area of town had something of a post-apocalyptic ambience to it at 5 AM. The adjacent canal hurled ammonia into our eyes and nostrils, piles of rubbish smoked carcinogenically, underclass kids with interesting skin conditions playing among the ruins of civilization and satanic 50 tonne juggernauts shook the asphalt.

Looking south across the canal however, we managed to catch sight of Gunungs Gede and Pangrango shimmering majestically in the sunrise over 50 km away. Just think, if we hadn't decided to hike to the airport at 2 AM in the bloody morning then we'd never seen this spectacular vista. As the sun beat down we eventually neared the airport. We stopped again next to the perimeter fence, some 50m from the start of the runway, and craned our head upwards to watch the landing beasts from about as close as the human eye gets to see them in flight. Just think, if I hadn't hiked for six hours through a desolate series of concrete shanty towns after first having my brain removed with a drinking straw, then I’d have never, etc, etc.

The road eventually joined the end of the airport toll, and the verdant area of lakes and roadside trees that I usually only see through a taxi window. We trudged the final painful hour into Terminal One. It had taken us seven and a half hours and, according to Dan's primitive, steam powered GPS system, we had walked 26 km. We felt a sense of achievement at having reached a level of stupidity and futility that few people ever manage to rise to. Certainly incoming Facebook comments were unforgivingly harsh in their assessment of our mental condition. We could perhaps be in the running for any putative, "Jakarta's Silliest Buggers" award, although in my view we'd be up against some pretty stiff competition there.

After the flight, the Palangkaraya leg of the hike from the airport into town was a three km breeze through bucolic fields and sleepy villages. Any sensible person would have started a hike from here instead. It had been an unforgettable 14 or so hours though, if nothing else, and my blisters testified to an Indonesian experience as far removed from Eat, Pray, Love's, feature length pasta sauce commercial as it's possible to get. Reward in itself I think.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Let the Pagan Spill Theirs O'er Mountain, Hill, and Plain.

Last weekend, upon leaving my favourite sub continental eatery after troughing down enough curry to sink a small barge, I wobbled out of Pasar Festival and chanced upon a rather boisterous event that was taking place in the car park. A couple of hundred people were gathered and were enjoying musical performances and speeches. Moreover, everyone was wearing identical T-shirts emblazoned with the acronym BKKBN, which stands for Badan Kordinasi Keluarga Berencana Nasional, which roughly translates as the National Coordinating Body for Family Planning.

Many of the assembled teenyboppers present looked far too young to be thinking about condoms, coils and pessaries. In fact, their nascent sexualities were probably more at the Peter Porn video on the mobile phone, embarrassed giggling and packets of tissues stage. Family planning education from a young age is clearly very important however, especially as many here seem to get married about three weeks after finishing high school.

Java is massively populated of course and, if you exclude far smaller islands with populations of less than ten million, it is by far the most densely packed island in the world. Around 130 million people are crammed onto Java's 132,089 km square, giving an average population density of 1026 per kilometre square. This is even more remarkable given how mountainous and actively volcanic the island is.

Back to the BKKBN 82nd birthday bash though. The costume parades and the music continued apace and slogans extolling the virtues of family planning could be seen everywhere. Former President and current National Hero candidate, Suharto, famously waged a, "Dua Anak Cukup," (Two Children are Enough) campaign during his three decade-long reign. In my view, this is one of the very few decent things that can be attributed to him, although this laudable attempt at public education was surely undercut by the general anti-intellectual herd mentality and impoverishing cultural docility that the dictator largely succeeded in inculcating in the general population in order to protect his personal empire, but hey that's just my view.

Perusing the BKKBN literature on hand, I found a few points of interest. One survey had questioned people about the best number of years to leave between a first and second child. Respondents could choose between one and five years. Gratifyingly, most chose five years but perhaps the BKKBN is preaching to the converted. I also learned that men are increasingly involving themselves in the issue of family planning because, "Men played a part in every birth that occurred," which I think hits the nail squarely on the head.

Alas, condom promotion, both for family planning and AIDS prevention purposes, has often hit the brick wall of intransigent Islamic piety here. Admittedly Muslims don't have the whole, to quote Monty Python, "Every sperm is sacred," Catholic approach to conception (and when you consider that a man can produce 100 million sperm in a single ejaculation, then masturbation is clearly close to genocide in the whole papist scheme of things).

What Islamists do have a downer on however, are sex and sexuality in general, and seeing as the subject of family planning inevitably involves the use of words such as, “penis” and “orgasm”, the whole contraception debate has often proved to fraught with religious sensitivities at a nuts and bolts level (and I stress the word bolts). In the Islamist's mind, condoms encourage promiscuity, which I think is rather putting the cart before the horse, but there you go.

The Malthusian nightmare of billions chewing up the planet for fun and profit is surely an increasing reality though and the clock’s running. Gaian theorist, James Lovelock, warns that if things don't change radically, we had better stash all essential human knowledge at the Earth's poles in a medium that doesn't require electricity. As it stands, the population of the world grows by one million every four days, a number that personally I find quite hard to get my head around.

What might a successful family planning campaign that actually reduces the country's, and indeed the world's, population look like? If everyone followed the now all but abandoned Chinese policy of one child per family, then by 2100, the population of the planet would be around 1.6 billion, a level last seen in the 19th Century before advances in medicine, food production and energy created a demographic time bomb. The world would daily become a better place and the results of this wouldn't just be in abstract statistical form, they would be outside everybody's window in the form of fresher air and a recovering planet.

A noble cause for sure! And so with my head held high and inspired by the BKKBN bun fight, I headed round the corner to Pasar Festival's huge new branch of 7 Eleven in search of some latex civilisation savers. Fighting my way through the retina scorching strip lighting, which is equivalent to about ten OId Traffords worth of floodlights, I selected a packet of three Durex Performa, as I need all the help that I can get in that department. Reading the packet, I was also gratified to note that a special cream keeps the wolf from the door when you're nearing what in British slang are known as the vinegar strokes. Just the ticket. Have a well planned week one and all.

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.