Thursday, January 27, 2011

It's Like a Jungle Sometimes...

This week, I thought that I'd return to my roots, so to speak, and I ended up taking a spin through the very first place that I ever stayed in Jakarta, namely the rough and ready district of Tanah Abang, which can be found very close to Monas. I'm not really sure what spurred this walk down a rather dusty memory lane, although perhaps it was a photo, now well over a decade old, that a friend posted up on Facebook recently. It depicted the old gang, full of smiles, innocence and joie de vivre and it fair brought a tear to my eye so it did.

Anyway, down in Tanah Abang, I strolled through my old ‘hood, namely the complex of four story high apartment blocks known as Rumah Susun in Indonesian. We used to call them, ‘The Projects’ though as it sounded more streetwise and New York hip-hop than their real name. It really wasn't such a bad place to live in however, certainly better than their equivalent in my own home of the UK. There, drugs, gun crime and evil kids shovelling dog excrement and fireworks through pensioners’ letterboxes are the norm. The Indonesian projects though, perhaps like their Singaporean counterparts, are pretty friendly places on the whole.

It's a wonder more accommodation like this isn't built around Jakarta, as it is in Singapore. God knows that this city of 1000 'kampungs' could do with it. I for one certainly didn't regret my year spent in my third floor, small but not absolutely rabbit hutch like flat. In fact the only down side of the whole experience was the morning bread seller who used to ride his bicycle around the towers at five o'clock every morning gleefully honking his horn. I used to entertain fantasies of performing electroshock torture on this poor unfortunate, who would disturb my sleep every single morning. Honk, honk honk, honk, “Roti, roti, roti” honk honk honk. Jesus.

The next part of my voyage through all of my yesterdays took me up the road into the still quite dodgy Tanah Abang market area. This all-time gangsta zone was once the stomping ground of an Indonesian hoodlum and his gang, who, rather humorously, went by the name of Hercules. I believe that Hercules is now out of business and I always used to imagine him as looking like that beefy guy in the Phantom of the Opera mask who’s on that Indonesian crime show every morning, trying to keep people on the straight and narrow and out of clink. I wonder what Hercules is doing these days? Writing his memoirs perhaps, and tending to his begonias.

Tanah Abang market has always been a huge lower class retail scrum, with a specific focus upon the textile industry. The original market burned down a few years ago in somewhat suspicious circumstances, as so many buildings do in this country when plans for new construction are afoot. In its place there now stands an absolutely gargantuan edifice containing a maze of literally thousands of clothes shops. It's all very organised, well, considerably more so than it used to be. Outside however, the area still more closely resembles the refugee camp type ambience of old and there are crippled beggars, piles of garbage and public minivan jams galore to enjoy before you finally reach the hallowed entrance to the market proper.

I headed inside and quickly became lost in the labyrinthine passages filled with bra shops and T-shirt vendors. Prices are amazingly cheap in the new market and I came away with a genuine leather belt which, remarkably enough, genuinely seemed to be made from leather.

I took my leave of the market and headed back out into the heaving, sweating atmosphere of downtown Tanah Abang, an area of the capital that builders of luxury apartments have so far, perhaps wisely, chosen to sidestep. Once this area of Jakarta becomes gentrified then you’ll know that things are really changing. For now though, Tanah Abang remains not so different from how it looked over a decade ago. Just another one of those dusty, timeless Indonesian urban streets blissfully alienated from the mad rush for condominiums and iPhones.

I couldn't really imagine living up in Tanah Abang again these days though. As one gets older one becomes increasingly desirous of a little peace and quiet and to leave the most hectic of urban areas to the younger blades. Mind you, if I really applied the logic of this statement fully, then I most surely wouldn't be living in Jakarta at all. Perhaps it's time for me to go and live halfway up a mountain in Sulawesi then. I could do it, so long as there was a Circle K on the lower slopes.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Get off Your Milk and Drink Your Horse

Jakarta is home to a lively selection of foreign cultural institutes such as the CCF, Erasmus Huis and the Goethe Institute, which all put on classical music concerts, lectures, exhibitions, film festivals and the like. Now though, Uncle Sam has also got in on the act and has come out all guns blazing by setting up the incredibly high-tech @america centre, the first of its kind in the world, down in the suitably high-tech surroundings of Pacific Place mall. The propagandist platitudes of Voice of America are no longer deemed adequate in these ideologically charged times, and so a glitzy, tech wonderland has been constructed, which more closely resembles the Epcot Centre or even the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, than any of the city’s other cultural centres. 

@america's mission is to boldly go where no US embassy has gone before and disseminate an ideology of truth, justice and the American way to eager visiting school kids (before Obama is ignominiously booted from office two years hence and the centre is closed and replaced by a more traditional new world cultural artefact, such as a branch of Starbucks).

First things first though, in order to penetrate into the digitally wired inner sanctum of Pax Americana central, I first had to breach the Fort Knox-esque security detail, which included an x-ray scanner, a full body frisk (my socks came under particular scrutiny for some reason) and the storage of my bag in a clear, Perspex locker. One could perhaps forgive the Guantánamo style vigilance however, as there are no doubt many in Indonesia who would wish to see @america blown into rubble.

I entered the main @america auditorium and was simply staggered by the technological wonderland that had been constructed. There were screens everywhere, multicoloured lighting, an iPad lending centre, interactive touchscreens on stands, a DJ and a huge six screen surround Google Earth to try. I felt like an ant that had accidentally crawled through the USB port of high end smartphone.

All very impressive, but was there actually any substance behind the semiconductor pizzazz? Or would @america proved to be more Shania than Mark, Twain wise that is? I strolled over to one of the jumbo, three foot wide iPad style touch tablets and fired up a quiz about the US. "What's the name of the American national anthem?" the screen said. I was presented with four options, "The Star Banner, The Star Spangled Banner, Stars and Stripes Forever or The Pledge of Allegiance." Smarty-pants that I am, I correctly stabbed the second answer and was mildly disappointed that Jimi Hendrix's stratospheric rendition of this iconic piece of music didn't fire up over the speakers in celebration.

Time for another question: "Which of the following US presidents never visited Indonesia: George Bush, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter." Well, I knew that the first three had all washed up on these shores during their time in office. On his 1986 visit to Indonesia, Ronald Reagan famously described Suharto as a, "longtime friend of the US," and talked of how, "the winds of freedom are blowing," through the region, which I think it speaks volumes about the US’s purported goal of spreading democracy overseas. 

I touched the last name on the list, Jimmy Carter, the one-time peanut farmer who ironically never found time to make it over to the land of satay sauce during his single term in office. However I remember him being here in 1999 as part of a delegation sent to check the impartiality of the country's first post President "Winds of Freedom" Suharto election.

After browsing some groovy interactive science and eco-consciousness raising software, I headed into @america's other main room and chanced upon my favourite part of the whole place, namely a version of Google Earth rendered on six large surround screens. (The screens themselves were made by that most celebrated of US tech brands...erm... Samsung). I'm sure that most of you reading this have enjoyed a good click around on Google Earth before, and the new 3D street level views are particularly amazing and allow you to zoom right up to your old geography teacher's front door and fantasise about lobbing a grenade through the letterbox.

The six screen surround version was simply jawdropping though and I could have spent all day clicking around, burning through the Grand Canyon and wondering exactly why Google's London buses had all been rendered hovering two feet above the road.

I finished off my @america afternoon in front of a web cam, which took four pictures of me covered in digitally rendered snow and then sent them automatically to yours truly via e-mail (although at the time of writing they still haven’t arrived in my inbox. Julian Assange may have got to them first perhaps).

@america may not be the most intellectual of environments but it perhaps offers some insight into the school of the future. There is an increasing mismatch between the traditional, analogue classroom, in which the teacher stands at the front and drones on and on, and the new tech savvy, touchscreen jabbing younger generation, who are having their central nervous systems rewired and accelerated by interactive digital technologies. In this regard, perhaps @america is a glimpse into the future. Definitely Shania though.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

It's a Holiday in Cambodia...

This festive season I thought that I’d leave the somewhat dispiriting anti-Santa vibe being promulgated around Indonesia and go on an ASEAN voyage of discovery. My comparative study tour to Cambodia went without a hitch, although it wasn't at the taxpayers’ expense, as such jaunts so often are here (when politicians undertake them at least).

Shame that, but no matter because the Rp.1,000,000 fiscal exit tax has now been abolished (as of January 1st) which, along with the continued expansion of regional carriers, particularly the ever ambitious AirAsia, should open the region up to Indonesian travellers like never before. I wonder what they'll make of cities such as Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh in comparison with their own urban centres? 

Certainly Phnom Penh was quite delightful and I'm sure that at least two or three of my six and a half regular readers must have been there before. The city makes for a pleasant change from Jakarta's demographic black hole that's for sure. However Phnom Penh and the country of Cambodia beyond has a dark recent history, one in which demographics also played their part (25% of the population were offed, that's two million people).

I thought that I would get the dark side out the way first and check out the Khmer Rouge's genocidal Killing Fields. Perhaps in retrospect though, this was a rather un-life affirming way of spending a jolly Christmas Boxing Day (December 26th). “Ho Ho Ho, happy Christmas Mister Cambodian 'tuk-tuk' driver, and how are you this fine day Sir?”
“Genocide Mister? You waan see genocide?”
“Erm...will there be turkey?”

I soon found myself checking out the many skulls on display at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (a memorial and museum), which lies some 15km from town. Most disturbing of all was the tree behind the memorial, upon which thousands upon thousands had their brains smashed out (why waste bullets, ay?). The victims included kids who were swung by their feet headfirst into the trunk. Nice.

On a neighbouring tree hung a sign written in stuttering English which said, "Magic tree: the tree was used as a tool to hang a loudspeaker which make sound louder to avoid the moan of victims while they were being executed." Words fail me. During periods of wet weather in this now peacefully bucolic part of the world, teeth and fragments of bone still find their way to the surface of the mud from the now exhumed mass graves below. Appalling as such scenes are, events like this and the Nazi Holocaust still manage to exert a ghastly fascination in the face of humanity pushed to its extremes.

The Khmer Rouge’s reign was almost certainly, despite some pretty stiff competition, the world's worst stab at communism to date. These guys promulgated an ideology so pure that even redemption was ruled out and the slate had to be wiped completely clean in order for a fresh start. Religion may well be an opiate but at least you get to reach paradise after a lifetime of obedience. By the Khmer Rouge's account, you have to die in order to realise a paradise in which you will play no part.

Mind you, at exactly the same time as all this was going on, Indonesia was, percentage wise at least, offing similar numbers of East Timorese, and certainly not in the name of communism. I think it's fair to say that Marx's critique of capitalism didn't include a discussion of how not enough kids were having their brains smashed out against trees. Where Marx differed from those other turn-of-the-century arch atheist provocateurs, Freud and Nietzsche, however was that he ultimately believed that humans were fundamentally rational creatures, and could therefore achieve a peaceful and egalitarian brotherhood of man on Earth. Boy did the Khmer Rouge prove him wrong on that score.

Cambodia is now a country reborn however and a fantastic place for a holiday. Tourism and the economy are booming and the capital is a fun place to spend a few days, checking out the amazing temples and enjoying the riverside bars and restaurants. In fact, the sunny, easy going and historically rich Phnom Penh vibe is far closer to Yogyakarta than Jakarta.

I also followed the well worn tourist trek up to Siem Reap in order to check out the breathtaking Angkor Wat complex. Like Java's iconic Borobudur, the temples here sit in a beautiful area of countryside, however the sheer scale of the complex itself is something else entirely. That people managed to build things such as the pyramids and the temples of Angkor without forklifts, pneumatic drills, huge trucks and hard hatted workmen with their bum cracks showing over the top of their jeans drinking tea out of flasks, always seems completely implausible to me. The temples can be cycled around in a couple of days via lovely, shaded, leafy lanes and well deserve their so called “Eighth Wonder of the World” status.

And so the skies continue to open up over the ASEAN region, the fiscal tax is gone and there's never been a better time for Indonesians to check out their near neighbours. Will this adversely affect domestic tourism though? Your move RI.