Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Car Jamming

Last weekend afforded me the opportunity to undertake another of my Indonesian politician style comparative study tours. AirAsia once again supplied me with a great value flight and some simply appalling in-flight coffee, as I hopped over the briny to Kuala Lumpur in order to take in this year's Malaysian Grand Prix. My trip to last year’s Singapore Grand Prix gave me a chance to compare the island state's sweeping boulevards and cyber-conformist hygiene with Jakarta’s pungently aromatic demographic implosion, and I was hoping that KL would offer up some similarly enlightening contrasts.

KL has been described to me as being midway between Jakarta and Singapore, although the fact that both Malaysia and Singapore host Grands Prix, whilst Jakarta doesn't, perhaps tells you all that you need to know about the three cities' relative urban credentials. Indonesia's largest sporting event is the Commonwealth Masters Tennis tournament, which is held in Bali every year. This does indeed attract a few big names but it certainly isn't a big international event, although certain rogue tax officials have been so keen to attend in the past that they've been known to spring themselves from jail and don ludicrous Beatles wigs as a disguise.

In any case, down at the AirAsia terminal of Kuala Lumpur International Airport, everything was a Formula 1 frenzy, presumably because AirAsia supremo and Malaysian mogul extraordinaire, Tony Fernandes, now owns his very own Formula 1 team (in fact, he's revived the iconic Lotus brand). An expensive hobby perhaps, but presumably Mr F. isn't short of a few ringgit.

Kuala Lumpur's airport is roughly twice as far from the centre of town as Jakarta's Sukarno-Hatta is, however it lies a mere ten minute bus ride away from the Sepang Circuit. And so I soon found myself sitting on a lush, green hillside, necking Tiger beer and watching all of the Saturday qualifying action. Sepang is a great place in fact and affords spectators some simply superb views of all those high-speed dogfights.

After qualification was over, I had a stroll around the overpriced merchandise stalls (although there was a 50% discount on Michael Schumacher T-shirts -ha ha and furthermore, ha). I then headed into KL Central to hook up with a couple of my F1 loving chums who had also made the hop over from the Big Durian for the race, and we all headed out for a little Saturday night fever.

The centre of KL is perhaps closer in essence to Singapore than it is to Jakarta, and a few things stand out immediately to any visiting long-term Batavia warriors. Firstly, the traffic doesn't seem to be nearly as bad as the purgatorial gridlock that we all know and love. The lack of motorcycles in particular makes for a pleasant change. The second thing that struck me as we walked around KL is perhaps not entirely unrelated to the first. While Jakarta engages in endless debates about the city's actual and fantasized Gordian transportation knot of cars, busways, monorails, new flyovers and even bicycle lanes, the most fundamental mode of human transportation, namely Shanks's pony (or getting up of one's rear end and walking), has been sadly neglected.

"Normal" developed urban environments usually feature those amazing technological innovations known as pavements and, as a knock-on effect, there are bustling streets filled with shops and the like. Jakarta's fancy shops are all safely buried within the closeted, safe, technocratic womb of the shopping mall, whilst outside a post-apocalyptic urban assault course of crumbling concrete, 30-year-old buses, raw sewage and underclass serfs serves to deter any integrated urban renaissance (although a few brave venues have now opted to try a more alfresco approach to city life).

Coincidentally enough, I have just read that 500 trillion rupiah has been earmarked by the government for infrastructure development across the country. I reckon though that by the time a multitude of greedy politicos has dipped its avaricious mitts into the honeypot, there’ll be just about enough dough remaining for a couple of keep left signs.

Meanwhile, back in KL, Sunday came around and we all headed back to Sepang for a highly enjoyable race that actually featured a fair amount of overtaking. Wonders will never cease. The next day, it was time to the inevitable lemming like tourist traipse around Kuala Lumpur Tower and the Petronas Twin Towers. As iconic as the Twin Towers have now become, they are basically just two large slabs of steel and concrete. Whatever happened to architectural creativity in our modern world? The entire thrust of modern architectural hubris seems to be to raise your non-idea of a building 15 storeys higher than the neighbouring country's non-idea of a building.

Personally, I'd like to see Indonesia's putative and scandalously extravagant new parliamentary office building being constructed as a Gothic pastiche and filled with pointed arches and flying buttresses. Such a design would more fittingly reflect the mediaeval, Machiavellian mindset of those who will be ensconced inside it, enjoying a grease-down and a shiatsu whilst they scan the year's budget allocations to see what can be craftily diverted into their Citibank accounts. Gothic Jakarta, now that really would be infrastructure to be proud of.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Go Wild in the Country

Last weekend, it was time for your intrepid hero to make another foray into Indonesia's bucolic boondocks with my obsessive-compulsive mountain climbing chum, Mr. Dan, and a few other curious takers fooled into parting with their hard earned cash by the slick graphics of Mr. Dan's Gunung Bagging website.

Mr. Dan, in the flesh, has been known to exude the authority of a seasoned and knowledgeable hiker. On one occasion however, whilst leading a small group of keen and crisply booted, fresh-faced walkers on an early start through the Highlands of Bandung, Mr. Dan had felt a little worse for wear after a taxing night scaling Gunung Bintang and had ended up projectile chundering onto the road in front of his hiking disciples just before the off. This may have taken some of the lustre off the good Mr. Dan’s professional standing in the fiercely competitive world of amateur hiking, however it will take more than a mound of early-morning ale spew to put me off, and I soon found myself taking in the fresh air and outboard motor petrol fumes with Mr. Dan and the gang as our speedboat skimmed its way from Carita Beach on Java's west coast to the island of Panaintan, which sits next to the Ujung Kulon national park on Java southwestern tip.

I do like to indulge in the occasional return to nature in order to remind myself of my own mortality. Such near terminally exhausting trips are always memorable and interesting, although 'fun' perhaps wouldn't be the right adjective to use. Alas though, I can't accompany that irrepressible bounder of adventure Mr. Dan quite as often as I’d like to, as sitting on my fat arse watching DVDs and eating chocolate makes a lot of pressing demands on my time you understand.

Panaitan is the largest island in the Sunda Strait and is uninhabited by humans, save for a skeleton staff of caretakers. There's plenty of native fauna to be seen here however, including populations of deer, monkeys, pythons, monitor lizards, eagles, crabs, colourful fish, buffalo and even, apparently, crocodiles. I was slightly uneasy about the latter species to tell the truth. Animals are fascinating of course but I'm not an, "animal lover" as such, and rather regard those who lay claim to this title as perhaps compensating for a lack of more human bonhomie in their lives.

The prospect of being chewed up by a bloody great crocodile should always inform one’s views of the natural world, lest one end up as dead as Australian naturalist and mental case Steve Irwin. Before last weekend's trip, I had, moreover, just watched a Werner Herzog documentary called, "Grizzly Man" in which another chuckle-brained individual, one Timothy Treadwell, attempts to befriend and live with a population of bears in the wilderness of Alaska, with predictable dietary consequences for the local ursine population.

Personally, I doubted that a light spraying in Autan mosquito repellent would do much to deter a hungry croc from chowing down on my lily white legs, and I thus walked ashore at Panaitan with some trepidation. Thankfully though, while monkeys and deer could be spotted surrounding our campsite, crocodile-wise, things seemed peaceful and nature remained unbloodied in tooth and claw.

After cooking up a spot of lunch it was time for the main event. We reboarded our boat and headed up the coast for 15 minutes for an assault on Gunung Raksa, Panaitan's main peak. Only 329m tall it may be, but our ascent of Raksa proved to be pretty much the most masochistic thing I've ever attempted. Next to this, the hike up the 4,000 m high Gunung Kinabalu in Malaysia that half killed me last year was a walk in the park.

Dense jungle, steep, wet, muddy slopes and ludicrously inappropriate footwear conspired to have me looking as if I'd just crawled out of a particularly noxious swamp within a matter of minutes. Moreover, spring-loaded brambles liberally peppered with thorns gleefully grabbed at my hands and arms as I tried unsuccessfully for the 20th time not to fall over like a silent comedian on a banana skin.

We eventually reached the summit, atop which sits the oldest statue in Java. Unfortunately however, it’s a statue of the Hindu deity Ganesha, which means that, in light of recent developments in Sumatra, "offended" Muslims will no doubt soon be campaigning for its removal, despite the fact that it stands in one of the most isolated spots in the whole country. Looking at the statue, I had a vision of fundamentalist types cursing as their virgin white robes turned to muddy brown and their beards got caught on brambles, while they attempted to scale Raksa in order to blow up the statue, and this immediately cheered me up.

After a brief rain shower, which only served to make the muddy slopes even more slippery, it was time for the harrowing descent. I soon found myself bringing up the rear of our party of eight as I tried to negotiate the terrain carefully without breaking my neck. Alas though, this proved less than salutary place to be, as the seven infidels in front of me had worn the "path" down to the consistency of the slippery mud chute.

After about 10 minutes of near fatal skids and tumbles, I gave up walking and opted to simply slide down the slopes on my behind, as if it were some kind of tropical luge run. This proved to be a just about workable technique, although I accelerated frighteningly out of control on a couple of occasions before slamming to a halt against tree trunks. Moreover, on the final 200m walk along the flat to our waiting boat, I tripped over a root and fell flat on my face. You really should leave Jakarta more often at the weekend folks, you don't know what you're missing.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Dancing in the Dark

Well, Earth Hour came and went last weekend with many seemingly oblivious to its very existence. There are 8760 hours in a single year and thus cutting the power for one of these hours (punches numbers triumphantly into calculator) could result in a massive 0.0114 per cent reduction in our annual electricity consumption. Possibly this won't make a huge dent in global warming and the increasing likelihood that we’ll all be sipping Icelandic Shiraz before the century is out.

Earth Hour is however, in the yoghurt-weaving, glibly eco parlance of our times, supposed to be more of a so-called "Consciousness raising" exercise. More of which later, for now though I'll just note that plenty of businesses around the city seemed to be using the event as an opportunity to promote their own agendas. "Come and enjoy Earth Hour with us by candlelight, there will be a 25 per cent discount on margaritas all night!" kind of thing. Rather cynical really, although perhaps the idea was to get the punters so drunk that they couldn't drive, thus reducing their carbon footprints to zero at a stroke.

For my part, I decided to get on my bicycle and join an Earth Hour ride from fX Plaza up Jl. Sudirman to Monas with some of the city's keen amateur cyclists. As I'm sure most of you have noticed, there's something of a cycling revolution going on around town just at the moment. Young chaps have taken to twiddling around the city on the latest must have fashion accessory, namely the so-called ‘fixie’ bicycle. These are basically track bikes without gears and, quite worryingly, often without brakes too. Hipster kids are snapping up these rather impractical aluminium steeds like hot cakes however, usually in rather effeminate shades of lilac and turquoise and the like. They then spend their evenings pedalling between Circle K and 7Eleven in search of Red Bull fuelled good times (usually at extremely slow speeds due to the aforementioned lack of stopping power).

And so my cycling brethren and I twiddled our way gently up the traffic choked Jl. Sudirman, possibly looking as incongruous as someone bouncing a pogo stick around a Formula One track. As we neared the famous Hotel Indonesia roundabout, the road became so chock solid that I was forced into my usual foolhardy tactic of wheeling my iron horse into the Busway lane and then pumping the old thighs hard enough to avoid being steamrollered into the asphalt by a pursuing TransJakarta behemoth. None of my fellow cyclists proved to be up to the Busway challenge however. The big Jessies.

Up at Monas, the lights went out, plunging the flame tipped phallus into darkness, well, semidarkness anyway. A real Earth Hour, in my view, would kill street lights, traffic lights, hospital defibrillators, respirators and dialysis machines, the lot. Let's see how committed people actually are to this premise. For my part, I gave up after half an hour and went to soak up the native charm down on nearby Jl. Jaksa at a friend's birthday drinkathon.

Earth Hour ay? I can't help feeling that this charity for the environment isn’t raising consciousness to the critical level of visceral, physical reality needed to break the capitalist-consumerist fantasies of our lives, lives that increasingly float unshackled by mere Earthly, environmental gravity, lives that are buoyed up by images on screens and the disembodying effects of surfing the net. Rather the whole environmental, Earth Hour shtick seems to have been assimilated into our materialistic culture as just another ad campaign. As the novelist Christopher Isherwood once said, the rich world has, "retired to live inside our own advertisements. Like hermits going into caves to contemplate."

Earth Hour is just another excuse to break out the bumper stickers and have a feel good Kodak moment, whilst the underlying mismatch of a capitalist system predicated on infinite expandability existing in a world of finite resources is never addressed.

Like the shark that needs to keep swimming to prevent itself from sinking to the bottom, our capital centric world has to keep growing to work properly. Thus new desires and needs have to be constantly manufactured. You can look in the wardrobe and think to yourself, “Right I’ve got eight shirts, one for everyday of the week, and one more for luck” but who does? Nobody in the developed world does this because that’s no good for the system. The system has to get you to keep buying more and more shirts in order for the whole game to work, and thus a whole mindset, an ethos of consumerism, has to be instilled in the subject. Such an ethos cannot simply be shrugged off by turning off the lights for an hour, lighting a few candles and singing a few choruses of MJ’s “Heal the World”.

Drunken musings aside, after a good old session with my friends, I found myself strolling outside of our bar of choice. "Oh bugger, I brought the bike didn't I?" I mused to myself. Now, I cycle to work every day, which is only 15 minutes from my house, but I'm certainly not used to cycling to the boozer of an evening. Moreover, earlier in the night, a friend had confessed to cycling into a metal pole in the middle of the street after a particularly discombobulating night out in Bali. "I mean, what was the pole doing there?" He implored. "Don't blame the pole," I reasoned, "it's only one short step from that to 'These are my airline seats, I'm a very important man, I'm friends with the boss of your company, I could have you fired!'" In any case, it was time to man up and wobble off home. Thankfully my bicycle has brakes, otherwise I'd have really been trouble.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Girls on Film

As well as having to deal with the multi-headed hydra of all the country’s other woes, Indonesians now face the very real possibility of being deprived of Hollywood and other imported movies, as the nation's cinemas battle with new tax regulations. It's all highly complex and convoluted, as these things invariably are, however, in a nutshell, the film industry is squaring off against the government regarding a threatened import tax increase.

This would be a major blow to the cinema going public of course. Personally, I rely on the gentle flickering of the silver screen to prevent me from ever experiencing any genuine emotion and fear a total psychic meltdown should the psychological crutch of the Hollywood cliché be removed from my life. In any case, the speciously nationalistic argument being offered is that the government is trying to support the national film industry, not that it has ever given much of a stuff about it before, but there you go.

A few shining beacons of excellence aside, the Indonesian film industry is primarily known for its gratuitously titillating, lowest common denominator fare, which is usually liberally peppered with toilet roll wrapped zombies, buxom wenches straight from the central casting couch, and balloon-bursting-noise-face-punch sound effects.

However, as we could all be forced to watch this stuff in the future, I thought that it would be best to check out a few local offerings. With this in mind, I picked up three local DVDs last week. They were all originals too, and priced between Rp.29,000 and Rp.49,000 (the fact that the vendors I visited didn't stock any pirated local films was not of the slightest interest to me, let me assure you).

I selected the three movies in question, which have all been screened at the country's Studio 21 cinemas over the last year or so, from the racks entirely at random. Even the one that sported a front cover image of local siren Julia Perez in her underwear was a random selection. Pure pot luck in fact, amazing really.

So let's get down to brass tacks then. First up was, "Nakalnya Anak Muda" (Naughty Youngsters), a murder thriller set in a spooky villa (yawn). In this effort, a group of chaps pick up a couple of sloe-eyed slatterns at a disco and they all head out to the countryside for a nice holiday, where the guy operating the dry ice machine really lets rip with some pea souper ambience.

Plot written by a hamster with its brain wired up to a pocket calculator aside, Indonesian movie production values definitely seem to have improved of late and the action sequences had an almost Cape Fear-esque moodiness to them.

Alas, the only two surviving members of the murdered gang head down to the local police station, where the local arm of the law proves to be a model of professional concern. This bit required a suspension of disbelief above and beyond the capabilities of my perhaps meager imagination however. So I rebooted the DVD player and inserted our next Golden Garuda nominated effort, "Wakil Rakyat" (People's Representatives), which promised to be a political satire slash romantic comedy.

In this flick, we find ourselves at the conference of a fictional political party, the PSK (Partai Social Kerakyatan, which translates as the Social Democratic Party). The movie's hero, a janitor at the conference, let's a cat loose backstage to take care of the buildings rat problem. Alas however, the wily feline instead attacks the vermin like political elites, a nice play on a popular political metaphor.

The love story in this one is, as usual, as slushy as the bottom of a warung cool box, however there were a few nice touches of political satire to enjoy, which is something that should definitely be encouraged here in my view. God knows that if the country's script writers really sharpened up their knives, then there’s enough material for thousands of movies for them to get stuck into.

Alas, the satire in this effort seemed to get slightly smothered by all of the doe-eyed fawning. Presumably though, what with this country's political culture, directors and producers here still run the risk of ending up embedded in a central pillar support in one of the city’s currently under construction flyovers if they overstep the mark.

The final show was Julia Perez's "Istri Bo'ongan" (Pretend Wife). Hand shaking in anticipation of 90 minutes of truculent, quivering Perez, I loaded the disc into the machine, had a cold shower and pressed play. Julia's busty substances had certainly been given a starring role and in the film's opening scene we see our heroine, the perfidious Perez, picking up a guy in a bar, taking him home and then being roughly taken from behind against a plate glass window.

After a five-minute break to take my blood pressure meds and to apply a few icy flannels to my forehead, I pressed play again and pressed on with the movie. A tale of love, jealousy and deception unfolded before my eyes and built to a not entirely satisfying denouement, but who cares when young Julia’s there to save the day. It was just as well I was watching this one at home because smoking isn’t allowed in Studio 21 cinemas and my retinas were definitely starting to smolder.

So, will the Indonesian movie scene flourish? Well, as French art-house ponce Jean-Luc Godard once said, "All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl." By this account, Oscar nominations surely beckon.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Are Friends Electric?

Last weekend, I thought that I'd finally bow to the dictates of fashion and the demands of cyber chic and buy a new mobile phone. My old model is looking decidedly clunky and more worryingly seems to have developed a fault whereby the device sometimes heats up while the battery drains at tremendous speed. I'm somewhat reluctant to get it fixed however, as popping it in my pocket affords me a cheap thrill and keeps the family jewels nice and toasty.

In any case, I soon found myself trying to cross the road in front of Mal Ambassador in order to gain access to the multimedia bun fight/cyber refugee camp contained within this retail pleasure palace. Crossing the road here, previously a nightmare, has been made easier by the addition of a proper pedestrian crossing, complete with bleeping and flashing walk/don't walk signals, possibly the first of their kind in town.

One always crosses the road at one's own risk in Jakarta of course, however this new Metropolitan innovation (only about 50 years after the things were first invented, but there you go) are surely a welcome introduction. Perhaps this will spur the city into some larger infrastructure projects. As it stands however, if a Japan style 10 metre high tsunami were to crash through Jakarta Bay at the moment, it would probably cause around Rp.50,000 of damage.

In fact, Governor Fauzi Bowo claimed this week that Jakarta's buildings would survive a major earthquake. Personally, I'd be more inclined to believe him if he’d put his money where his mouth is and gave us all a demonstration. I'd certainly enjoy seeing his moustache swaying from side to side and his panic stricken face poking out of the top floor window of an abandoned tower block as workmen worried away at the building's foundations with JCBs and the Indonesian military set off a few controlled detonations in the underground car park.

Anyway my little Wikileakers, after wading through monkeys on leashes and a phalanx of ojeg drivers buzzing hard on Red Bull, I finally made it into the plaza. Fantastically cheap devices have now put the wired world within nearly every Indonesian’s grasp, and I guess we have China and its discounted digital products to thank for this. Certainly Indonesia hasn't reached the same level of Sino semiconductor Savvy just yet. In fact, as I strolled through the rows of shops all selling Rp.500,000 Chinese Nexians, I had a vision of a similarly priced Indonesian device the size of a dictionary, bound in a teak and batik casing and coming with a hands-free device resembling the headphones from a B-52 bomber.

No matter. They may not make 'em here but they certainly know how to use ‘em (sometimes to the exclusion of more pressing concerns, such as not driving into a canal). The Plaza was crowded with Sunday shoppers and the mobile phone stores in particular were awash with handset pumping customers and salesmen. In fact it proved impossible to tell one from the other. Where will all this button pushing end I wonder? Will we achieve a utopian, technological so-called "singularity" or is our touchscreen, silicon world just so much mental morphine taking our minds off the imminent collapse of the planet. Is there nothing of substance behind the technological smoke and mirrors? Or will we pull open the curtains on the whole dazzling spectacle, like Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz”, only to be confronted with some senile old fart sitting there pulling a few levers?

Ah well, if you can't beat them. I eventually plumped for one of those new Android phones so that I could enjoy a wealth of apps, without being an Apple sap. There was one application in particular that I was most keen to get my hands on. RunPee Mobile shows just how deeply one can immerse oneself in the mobile life these days. Basically, if you are watching a movie in the cinema and get caught short, this application will give you a time linked synopsis of any plot developments taking place on the screen whilst you're draining your spuds in the cinema toilets. Bloody ridiculous. Although, if Hollywood films really do disappear from local theatres, as has been threatened, then I guess that you could just sit at home with your mobile and read the entire synopsis feed as an alternative to actually watching the damn thing. You'd be saving yourself Rp.25,000 and you could take a piss whenever you wanted into the bargain.

And so I bought my Android phone and, over the next few days, became engrossed in its infinite ocean of possibilities playing out across circuits more powerful than an 80s supercomputer. I've now crossed the critical threshold folks, like so many Jakartans before me have. A line of digital delineation has been traversed, beyond which it is impossible to switch the damn thing off. In fact, our computers will more than likely end up switching us off.

Applications that I am currently searching for online include a call-to-prayer hands-free noise cancellation processing app and a GPS linked Jakarta taxi meter app that'll tell me if the driver's digital display is galloping faster than necessary. Ultimately, I'm hoping to track down an application that will enable me to wire my mobile up to my office computer and telephone and do my job for me while I slide off down the pub. Come on Google and all you app developers. I've thrown down the gauntlet.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Paperback Raita

Education is the key to becoming a fully rounded human being, or so they say. For your Indonesian Bambang or Dewi Average however, the education that they are liable to receive at a common or garden state school is unlikely to be particularly enlightening, or encourage much in the way of free thinking either for that matter.

So what does that leave us with? Television? As noble as the ideals of those working at the start of the great goggle box era may have been, I think that it's safe to say that the mental slurry that the tube shovels into our grey matter via eyes and ears for six hours a day isn't particularly edifying either, although there are notable exceptions.

So that leaves us with reading I guess, and the educational potential of the DIY approach. Not that this isn’t also fraught with problems. Hitler and Stalin were pretty much autodidacts and products of public libraries. It’s sobering to think of Adolf and Joe getting to grips with the Dewey decimal system. I wonder how big an unconscious effect the isolating silence of the traditional public library had on these two great dictators in the making, as they cobbled together their solipsistic ethical systems.

These days, there’s always the Internet too of course, however the closed communities, instant feedback loops and global reach that the web allows for seems to be even worse at breeding a whole generation of conspiracy theory fruit bat loon balls, all pumped up on their own mouse clicking paranoia.

But enough of this effete badinage. I decided to go old school this week and check out Jakarta's public library system. In fact, I was quite looking forward to a brief return to dog-eared pages and shelves of musty print, as I recently purchased an e-reader and have been hard at work depriving the world authors of royalties via dodgy downloads ever since.

Just to digress for a moment, I heartily recommend these new gizmos. They store a ton of books and, most importantly as far as I'm concerned, sport the new e-ink technology. Basically, your average e-reader is a whole lot less sexy than an iPad, but its screen is not backlit, meaning no more eyestrain than a real book. And I say this as someone whose excessive computer usage has bored holes in his occipital lobes. Friends of mine remain cynical about the time-honored technology of the book being usurped by these devices however. "I don't believe in these e-readers, Simon," one sighed at me.
"I can assure you that they really do exist," I countered.

Down at Library@Senayan in the Ministry of Education building at the bottom end of Jl. Sudirman though, it was a solid return to deforestation as the primary method of information transfer. My first attempt at some hardcore bookworm action was based on various archive pieces that I found on the Internet claiming that the library was now open until 8 p.m. and hailing a new era for Jakarta's libraries, which would now still be open for access by office workers when they knocked off for the evening.

I thus eagerly turned up at about 6 p.m. and alas had only tumbleweeds blowing around my ankles for company. Closed. Harumph. I wonder how long the 8 p.m. closing initiative lasted. Possibly as long as Busway lanes free of cars, smoking prohibitions in all public buildings and motorcycles being forced to ride on the left...about two weeks perhaps.

My second attempt to gain access to this hallowed hall of learning proved more successful however. I headed upstairs and found that the library houses a sizeable English language book, audio and DVD library, which was largely inherited from the British Council. Presumably my British homeland doesn't have the cash to run the thing any more, what with the current financial squeeze, Conservative Prime Minister and rapidly drying up Libyan arms money. Double harumph. In fact, I read recently that a number of British public libraries are set to close, a move that has spawned a wave of bespectacled librarian riots across the country.

Library@Senayan is still open for business however, and its members start off in the Basic category, before graduating to Regular membership after one year and Premium membership after two years. Alas, Basic membership allows readers to borrow a miserly one book only. Triple harumph.

I thus declined the opportunity to join, still in a thrall to my e-reader, and instead went on a mini-tour of the bookshelves on a quest for the most tedious book titles that I could find. Among the gems I chanced across were, "Pesticides 1999", "Crofton and Douglas's Respiratory Diseases Volume 2" and "Security and Crime Prevention in Libraries." Someone clearly has a sense of humour with that last one. An honorary mention should also go to, "Tackling Alcohol Together", a weighty tome that perhaps doesn't tackle the subject from the angle that the somewhat ambiguous title seemed to suggest at first glance.

All of these seminal works and more can be yours for the borrowing, taking home, reading and forgetting about until you receive an overdue notice, down at Library@Senayan. Ignore several of these notices at your peril, as you will eventually find your house surrounded by an elite squad of heavily armed Indonesian police librarians demanding through megaphones that you emerge from the front door with your hands on your head kicking the book in question in front of you. Good luck out there bookworms.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Monkey Gone to Heaven

This week, I attempted to escape the gravitational pull of Jakarta's population singularity by road. If you've ever attempted such a Homeric feat yourself, you'll know that it requires the patience of Job. The desperation currently being engendered by Jakarta's internal combustion engine purgatory is currently leading to a correspondingly desperate slew of ideas aimed at alleviating the problem. We are talking ideas so half baked that if they were potatoes, you’d be checking the warranty on your microwave.

Firstly, I've been keeping an eye on the progress of the new elevated road flyover, that will run south for nine kilometers from Blok M. Huge pile drivers and excavators have now turned Jl. Antasari into a post-industrial no man's land, however the exact progress of this new flyover remains hidden behind tasteful hoardings depicting green forests and jungle vistas. This is somewhat ironic, as this long stretch of semi-suburbia has now been almost completely denuded of trees in order to make way for the new gasoline guzzling funfair ride.

Previously, Jl. Antasari may have been perpetually jammed, but at least it had a few leafy boughs for frustrated taxi drivers to gaze upon and drift off into bucolic reveries about their home villages over, as they crawled along at an average speed of 0.1 km/h. This area is now alas seemingly destined to be yet another alienating sea of concrete. Will it be less jammed though? Well that’s debatable. For a start, the flyover is not going to increase the overall amount of public transportation, as being suspended six metres above the road would surely make disembarking from buses a problem. Mind you, this being Indonesia, I would fully expect some dollar-a-day chancer to install a series of rope ladders at 100 meter intervals along the flyover and charge bus passengers Rp.500 a time in order to drop down onto the traffic below.

Even more fun awaits Busway users however. Governor Fauzi recently had a brainwave as he was shampooing his still bristlingly handsome moustache in the shower, and has decided that he may reverse the direction of the city’s Busway lanes, creating a TransJakarta contraflow system that he claims will, "discourage" other motorists from cheekily slipping into said lanes.

Let's hope that every single car driver is indeed discouraged, as I have visions of some poor young lady absentmindedly sliding her Honda Jazz into one of the new contraflow lanes, before slamming into a gas powered behemoth at a combined relative velocity of 100 km/h. Still, should the Jazz disgorge its contents and the young lady in question be slammed head first through two windshields before coming to rest on the bus driver’s steering wheel, then at least the quickest route to medical attention would be to simply remain on the bus until it passed the nearest hospital.

But I digress. My own drive down to the charming stretch of coast at Pelabuhan Ratu was its own hell on wheels. After leaving the luxurious, tarmac covered expanses of the Jakarta toll road at Ciawi, one is instantly funnelled into a potholed, minivan choked bottleneck and onto a road surface apparently consisting of squashed tofu and rice. Still, at least there was an unbroken line of minimarts stretching into the distance to help me out on my West Javanese odyssey. People are currently complaining of minimart overkill, but when you're crawling along at 50 meters per hour, they can be a godsend. In fact, it’s somewhat ironic, given the orthodox Mohammedan fervor currently whipping certain elements in Java into a frenzy, that there's never been a larger amount of tasty refrigerated beer available on the average West Javanese high street.

My journey to the beach eventually took six hours (it's possible to do it in three). Still, I managed to use the lost three hours productively by reminiscing about comedy shows and music with my companion for the journey, the inestimable Mr. Dan. Multitasking, as I believe it's called in the parlance of our times.

The following morning, I joined around 40 other hikers and we embarked on a 20 km long jaunt down the coast. Along the way we encountered deserted virgin beaches and beautiful thick jungle. It was hard to believe that I was on the same Malthusian vision of island life as I had been the previous evening.

Walking down through a jungle filled headland towards a timelessly unspoiled stretch of sand, I drifted off into a hallucination of one million years of life on Java compressed into several minutes. I imagined a semi-evolved simian following me down onto the beach after descending from the headland trees. He would gradually straighten up on his two legs as we headed towards the sand and would then wade into the sea. Finding himself able to swim, he would then return to dry land, now fully hairless, having ascended several thousand years up the phylogenetic scale during his dip. He would then walk to the nearest road and find a Toyota parked there. After jumping all over it in confusion like a ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ primate dancing around a monolith, he'd have a eureka moment, open the door, stick the key in the ignition and zoom off down the street to the nearest minimart. Which I believe is where we came in…

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Breakin' Rocks in the Hot Sun

Well it's been a somewhat less than enlightening time in Indonesia over the last couple of weeks. The Youtube video of the Ahmadiyah killings certainly gave me a few nightmares and made me wonder about the new religious orthodoxy sweeping the nation in a scrum of white robes, wispy beards and incandescent rage ready to boil over and be directed against anyone who has the audacity to hold different beliefs.

The philosophical argument that orthodox religion makes people less, rather than more moral is one that I, as a card-carrying infidel, fully subscribe to. Given that our morality, like our physical bodies, has evolved and is innate, we should have the courage to rely on our own convictions and judgements.

In contrast, dogmatic beliefs demand that the faithful follow rules strictly, like automatons, without thinking or questioning why they are taking certain courses of action, or why certain acts are either moral or immoral. Fundamentalists lack moral finesse and depth as a result. Their morality is merely reactive. What Nietzsche dubbed a slave morality.

Well that's enough from Atheism 101 for another week. The president is quite rightly copping plenty of flak over the incident. As the philosopher Hegel pointed out, the most dangerous ideology to any government is its own. For example, despite the still stubbornly persisting anti-communist rhetoric, I think it is fair to say that communism is not a major threat to Indonesia these days. There certainly aren't any on the political scene, as there still are in other countries.

 No, the real threat to Indonesia’s elites is the ideology that they actually pledge their allegiances to, namely secular democracy. It’s a threat because people might have the audacity to expect their leaders to live up to these ideals, and actually do what they say they're going to do.

So will the Indonesian public at large rise up once again and walk like Egyptians? Well they are certainly down with the whole social media thing that's supposed to be so potentially insurrectionary these days, although I'm not sure that for the most part it actually stretches much beyond taking a picture of the ‘soto ayam’ that they had for lunch on their Blackberries and then posting it up on Facebook under a status update that says, "This is what I had for lunch, yummy!"

And what of the actual forces of law and order, the police, what were they doing during all this mayhem? Well they were standing by in their ill fitting brown shirts, with epaulettes the size of Korans, and watching it all happen it would seem. Possibly they have sympathies with the rioters, I mean there are plenty of circumstances under which an Indonesian policeman won’t think twice about kicking seven shades of crap out of somebody, you just ask Amnesty International.

Ultimately though, what the apoplectic critics of the police force that have filled the media over the last week have failed to grasp, is that the actual law is largely irrelevant to most things that happen in this country. The police force has been essentially privatised here, and the public can avail themselves of a full range of law enforcement services, which can be bought for an easily payable, interest free fee. Simply pop into your local police station and pick up a price list. I believe there's a 30% discount this month on having a bothersome business partner arrested on the flimsiest of pretexts and then banged up in the slammer.

Thankfully, I've never enjoyed the edifying experience of having an Indonesian policeman’s size 9 wrapped around my ear hole. Although, over the years, I have been stopped more times than I care to recall in those classic, late night ID checks. If the policeman rejects your photocopy, the only way out is, as the British euphemism goes, to "Buy a ticket to the policeman's ball." God knows when this Indonesian policeman's ball is actually going to take place, but they’ll need to hire Gelora Bung Karno stadium on the big night in order to accommodate the crowds.

The main reason for such late-night tappings on the driver's side window in any normal country would be to administer a breathalyser test. However Indonesian law enforcers generally seem unusually unconcerned about being confronted with a motorist driving with one eye open, who greets them with a hiccup punctuated, "Malamat Salam." Strange really, as our brave boys in brown could surely rake in a fortune if they attempted to actually enforce drink-driving laws here.

My most recent run-in with the cops here came after I executed a U-turn I apparently shouldn't have.
"Mister, look at the sign, no U-turn."
"Ah, I see now, yes there is a sign there, not the most visible of signs it has to be said, what with it being unlit and at night time, and I also see that it's been deliberately bent behind the tree in front of it so that no one can see it."
"You can help me Mister?"
"You pay now."
"Just enough for one packet of cigarettes, come on Mister!"
"Lord almighty, have some dignity man."
Thus it ever was and ever shall be. Amen.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Phil Me Up

More comparative study touring this week folks, this time to the Philippines, somewhere I'd never been before. Alas though, Tony Fernandes' AirAsia doesn't fly to the country for some reason (you'd think he'd be a shoe in with a name like that) so I had to bag a non-budget Air Philippines flight to Manila. Four hours later I touched down at Ninoy Aquino airport and took a taxi that was every bit as dodgy as the ones down at Soekarno-Hatta into town.

It turns out that Manila is similar to Jakarta in many respects, only with more pork, booze and firearms on the menu. The capital of the Philippines is both crowded, traffic jammed, polluted and possessed of a rich/poor chasm that would turn Dick Cheney into a socialist. The people also look exactly like Indonesians, although frustratingly, and rather inconsiderately in my view, they don't speak any Indonesian.

I soon found myself taking in all the classic tourist sites, including a walk through the huge and action packed Rizal Park to the waterfront (which, I have to say, looks considerably cleaner and less likely to be incubating horrendous skin diseases than the turgid stuff sloshing around in Jakarta Bay does). Eventually it was time for a feed. I passed on a local fast food chain called Chic Boy but I felt unwilling to delve into the whole transgender can of worms that the name seemed to imply. Instead, I headed to an infamous bar called the Hobbit House and ordered up an Elvis flooring amount of pork.

The Hobbit House bar is rather unique in that its serving staff are all of diminutive stature. Basically they’re midgets and dwarves, as the not so politically correct terms for these delightful creatures have it. It was slightly unnerving to have one's beer poured by someone not much taller than the tabletop and I wondered if it was all a subtle psychological ploy to make the food portions seem larger in comparison with their tiny frames. I also speculated that naughtier Asian bars could exploit the low-on-the-ground-ness of the female waiting staff to offer customers various other services whilst they supped on their beers.

The classic rock covers band was soon shaking their locks though and, despite my usual misgivings about such bands, I had to admit that they were pretty good. The Philippines is famed for its musicians and, to be honest, the band that I saw at least, micturated all over their Indonesian counterparts from a great height.

The next morning it was time to jump on a bus bound for the beach. As I waited outside the hotel, I noticed a sign next to the security guard in the lobby saying, "Please deposit your firearms here." This is certainly not something you see in Jakarta thank God, as the place would be a bloodbath if your Budi Average was allowed to pack a piece.

The Philippines' recent history is somewhat intertwined with Uncle Sam of course, although I'm not sure that this desire to bang away like a porn star on speed is indigenous to the country or has been largely influenced by the old Charlton Heston brigade. In any case, I'm sure that Filipinos don't quite stretch to insisting, like Chuck, that they will only be separated from their weapons when they’re prized from their cold dead hands. Mind you, when Douglas MacArthur (in many respects perhaps a Heston antecedent) strode ashore and declared to the people of the Philippines that, "I have returned," presumably he was packing a few shooters in his belt.

Three hours from Manila, lays the tourist island of Mindoro and I thought that this would offer a genuine comparative study tour opportunity. It would thus afford me the chance test my firmly held belief that the people in charge of tourism in Indonesia, far from being experts in their own country’s geography and culture, would in fact find it hard to locate their own private parts without the aid of GPS system and are about as marketing savvy as a man who's just come up with a, "Honk if you're Ahmadiyah" bumper sticker.

Mindoro is a gorgeous place in fact and offers top diving, waterfalls, beaches, snorkelling, hot springs and mountains, much like any Indonesian island worth its salt in fact. Where it differed though was in its tourist numbers, which seemed to be at that Goldilocks, "just right," level. Neither creaking under the weight of sheer numbers with an infrastructure pushed to bursting point, like the comparably sized Bali is, but at the same time enjoying enough visitors give the place a bit of fun and life, unlike pretty much everywhere else in Indonesia outside of Bali, Mindoro is everything that islands like Lombok or Belitung could be, but aren't.

Alas, it was all too soon time to return to the Big Durian. I hadn't had nearly enough time to work on my pork belly, but it had been a thoroughly decent break from the psychic distress that Jakarta inflicts on me on a daily basis. Well worth a look.