Thursday, 18 November 2010

Your tourism mission… should you choose to accept it…

(To save myself a bit of typing from now on, I’m going to use the international sign IDR for rupiah – InDonesian Rupiah. Thank you for your understanding)

Mountain. Distance. Mists.
First stop – we had to see ‘the volcano’. Little was I to know that two weeks later, volcanoes would become a very big thing in Indonesia. At this time it was just something to see. We drove for 1½ hours. In the last 15 minutes the clouds descended and the mists rolled in reducing visibility to naff all. Perfect.

We parked at a good viewing spot, perhaps 5 miles from the volcano, and dutifully took pictures. I wasn’t over-impressed. See one mountain, you’ve seen them all, and I want my volcanoes to be like they were in my World of Wonder Annual, 1971, spewing molten lava and coated in dense clouds of smoke (rather too prescient, sadly). This was a big hill with a few clouds.
Statue with skirt. That's a
lot of material...

More fascinating to me were the silly details. Why did every statue have a skirt on? Why did most cars and motorbikes have raffia fascinators bedecking their radiators and wing mirrors?

It turns out that Bali is the island of the gods – Pulau Dewata. Everything has a ceremony and every day has something new to celebrate. The predominant religion is Hinduism, and today we were being treated by a day to pray for modes of transport. Our taxi driver was having his wife’s family over later so they could decorate all their cars together, and pray for them.

Someone's been practising their raffia work

I don’t mean to be sacrilegious or to mock others’ beliefs, but I was momentarily reminded of that episode in ‘Father Ted’ where Ted explains to Dougal that God probably doesn’t have a Saint whose job it is to look over Pop-Tarts, that would be silly. That job was probably handed out to an angel or such like, whose role would include all types of breakfast cereal.

We were about to drive off again when we were stopped by a man with a whistle and a stick. We’d parked in his parking area, and he’d specifically whistled to make sure people stopped while we were parking and he was about to whistle to let us pull out. Kind man. He wanted his fee, which was IDR1,000 – about 8p. I wasn’t going to argue.

Our lovely restaurant. Bill not shown

We also stopped for lunch in a restaurant with a view of the clouds that masked the mountain. The food on offer was fly-ridden buffet, that had presumably been sitting there for as long as was needed to draw in the phototourists and the Canon fodder. It was the most expensive meal that I’d had since arriving in Indonesia. A tourist trap, at last. I’d got what I wanted.
Restaurant toilet. Hygiene certificate not shown

We left the restaurant and looked for our driver. It was raining heavily, there were dozens of identical cars, and my companion and I looked at each other. Neither of us knew the registration number of the car or had taken the trouble to find out the taxi driver’s name. Nor what make of car it was. We gazed at the line of cars, receding into the mists, like a Ford Dagenham car park…

Could things get any better? At least I wasn’t in Karawaci. I was happy.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Bali... 36 hours and counting...

What was Bali like? Hard to tell. It was something of a staging post between two airport visits, in many ways.

Having spent weeks in the grimness of Stalag Karawaci, anywhere would have been a breath of fresh air, so perhaps Bali was wasted from that point of view. Southend would have been a delight, frankly.

In my time in Indonesia, I’ve now been on four Garuda Airline flights (the national airline) and not one of them has left anywhere near on time. We finally arrived at our hotel at 2am, hardly feeling at our best, and were immediately garlanded with flowers and offered fruit punch. Yippee.
Do I look like I
need a garland?

The hotel was indeed amazing. I was told that my room had been upgraded into one overlooking the sea. If you looked carefully enough you could, indeed, just see the sea through the trees, but that was an estate agent speaking there. I wasn’t going to complain, though.
The view from the sea. Spot
the 'sea view' hotel

The change from Karawaci was absolute. There was space, clean air, things to see and do and yes, an industry that had grown up around tourism.

There was an urgency in the air. Basically there was one free day. How to fill it with THINGS? Bali was full of STUFF. It had EXOTICA. What if I came back from Bali and hadn’t ticked off a single THING on the MUST-SEE checklist? I’d never be able to live down the shame.

The hotel had a tourism officer. What did we want to do? We explained about THINGS and STUFF and EXOTICA and the MUST-SEE checklist and he nodded sagely. He could satisfy all our whims and he would book us in for the 8.30am trip tomorrow. No, no! we cried. This was URGENT – there was only today.

A tremor of concern crossed his brow, made a right turn at his integrity lobe and reverse parked in the section of his cerebellum marked ‘profit’. No problem, of course it was no problem. His friend would be at the hotel in 10 minutes to pick us up. For two of us it would cost 850,000 rupiah – about £70. For that we would get our English-speaking taxi driver guide all day and he would take us to… at which point I glazed over. I’d see it when I get there. I allowed the ‘keen and grateful’ look, honed in years of marriage, to engrave itself on my face.

The game was up. Let slip the dogs of tourism…

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Indo in mini

Sometimes it’s the smallest things that give you perspective. A friend and myself were in Taman Mini Indonesia Indah (a sort of theme park but stranger than that – more details in a later blog) and it was raining. We decided that the rain had eased enough to keep wandering if we could find an umbrella.

Amongst all the stalls selling Mr Bean nodding dolls, bubblegum-pink toy guns and plastic Stetson hats, not a single one had the foresight to sell an umbrella. Not one. In a country where for much of the year it rains every day, none of these enthusiastic and intelligent vendors had thought to stock a gamp for the benefit of foreign visitors.

I managed with a paper round...
Small children would hire you an umbrella and then walk behind you, drenched to the skin, but with your rupiahs stuffed into waterproof bags.

So why could they manage one entrepreneurial venture but not the other? Let me give you another anecdote…

My mission seemed simple enough. I had been in Karawaci (a suburb of Jakarta) for three days and had found nothing except for the hotel and a shopping centre (with Debenhams, MacDonald’s, Burger King and Domino’s… hardly an authentic equatorial bazaar). There must be something more, there must… there were so many people staying in this hotel, surely a tourist industry had grown up around the rich bule.
Hotel Aryaduta. Smell the

I went to the hotel reception and addressed the receptionist in my best bahasa. ‘Selamat siang’ I started. ‘Is there something to do round here? Perhaps somewhere to visit or something to see?’ The receptionist looked a little bemused. ‘Well, there’s the shopping centre…’ she started uncertainly.
Yes, that's security and
a metal detector.
Take no chances...

‘Yes, I know,’ I smiled. ‘But something to see… something to do?’ The bemused look didn’t leave her face, but settled like a comfortable visitor who finds the cushions on your sofa exactly to his liking.

What passes for a tourist
hotspot in Karawaci

‘Err… no.’ And that was that. No other suggestions, no ideas of who to talk to, not even an offer of a hotel car to take me to some tourist trap.

There’s something charmingly na├»ve about the Indonesian attitude to tourists. I don’t want this to sound like they’re ignorant or stupid, they just don’t seem able to make that mental adjustment to see themselves as others see them.

They are unfailingly polite and always pleased to see you. They work hard when they need to and are charming and helpful. When they turn, though, they can be extraordinarily violent and internecine. Last week a police officer was killed in Papua when he got into an argument with his ex-brother in law. During the course of the argument, he was called a ‘thief’.

The village had had a spate of thefts recently and, hearing this, the villagers rounded on the police officer. He was severely beaten and, when he was rescued and taken to a safe house, the villagers broke into the house and beat him to death. On nothing more than a man’s word.

In Java last week, one Muslim group burnt a mosque to the ground and beat those who were inside, because they belonged to a different Islamic sect and outside South Jakarta District Court, rival gangs fought each other with machetes, guns and bows and arrows – surprisingly, only two died, but in gruesome ways.

Rather more bizarrely, two of the toughest gangs in town came head to head recently – the Indonesian Bar Association, which is formally recognised as the only authorised lawyers guild, and the rival Indonesian Advocates Congress. In the UK would this be a problem? They might make cutting remarks about each other’s perukes or the membership list of their golf clubs, but that’s about it. Here it was the start of a mass brawl with hundreds of them joining in.

I know, I know what you’re thinking – ‘quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’. I know, I know. Quis indeed.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

How half of the other half lives

So we left the travelogue with me full of beer and ayam goprek bakar, in a car driven by a houseboy, being driven to meet the parents of a teenager that my colleague and I had only really known for 6 hours.

Confused? You might have to go back a few episodes of this blog, to ‘Jakarta in a day’ to get the full picture. It’s worth it, I assure you.

We ended up in Cempaka Putih (I don’t know what it means, but the second word means ‘white’), driving down a scruffy dual carriageway with fairly large houses glowering in a self-satisfied way onto the road. Eventually we turned into a cul-de-sac with houses off each side. Parking up, we entered through a sliding security gate and then we met Angke’s parents.

We already knew a certain amount of what to expect. Angke had a fairly strict upbringing. Every evening that she wasn’t working in the hotel she had to be home by 8pm. She hadn’t had a boyfriend, only had a sip of alcohol once in her life, but oddly, had had her first cigarette aged 5. Her father was a chain-smoking Indian man who worked in finance and her mother used to be a cabaret singer and still played the piano.

I think that’s probably more facts than I know about most of my friends… it had been that sort of a day so far.

We were welcomed warmly, and offered coffee. Good coffee. Very good coffee, but apparently not the best; ‘look out for kopi luwak’, her mother told us (Luwak coffee). The younger sister said hello, then scuttled off, not to reappear while we were in the house. My colleague noticed a cabinet full of small perfume bottles.

‘My wife collects things,’ the father told us, just a twinge at the corner of his eye betraying the enormity of the pain behind that simple sentence. There were other, larger perfume bottles elsewhere; in all, perhaps 200 or more. ‘That’s why we have so many cats,’ he went on. ‘I hate cats’. Here, clearly, was a man beset by fortune. How sharper than a serpent’s tooth is a wife who collects cats, surely.

Russian cat. Price tag
withheld for legal reasons
‘Would you like to see the cats?’ the mother asked. But of course. Downstairs, in a side room, were four cages and an electric piano. Inside one cage was a huge white ball of fluff with legs – this was apparently an expensive Russian cat.

Now I’m no lover of cats, but I especially have a problem with those snub-nosed ones. There’s something anti-evolutionary about them, something that suggests that ‘survival of the fittest’ needs to have a sub-clause to include inbred animals that are ugly and serve no useful purpose somehow managing to keep their Speedos dry whilst paddling in the gene pool.
Apparently the word 'cat' is
applicable. Apparently.

Our driver’s bedroom was room next door. Bless him, he had pictures of Liverpool Football Club and Fernando Torres on the walls, and a hundredweight of fur in a skin bag in a corner. This, my friends, is what the world calls a Maine Coon. It’s just ridiculous, and apparently its genus classifies it as felis catus. Domestic cat. Subspecies wolf.

Upstairs there was a whole room of cats in cages. Now I appreciate that if these cats were allowed to roam free in Jakarta they wouldn’t last a day and that here they were cared for and healthy (recessive genes notwithstanding), but I couldn’t help feeling uneasy in this room. Time to go.

Comments seem superfluous here

The triumph of self-image
over reality
Next generation on the way

We said our fond goodbyes and promised to look after their daughter.

Angke took us briefly to the antiques market in Jalan Surabaya where an enthusiastic salesman tried to sell me a gong weighing about 50 kilos. No matter that it was going on a plane. He’d wrap it up. That’s ok then.

The view from the back of a
bajay. Tax disc not pictured.
A brief journey in a bajay – a three wheeled motorised rickshaw that laughs in the face of MOTs and giggles inanely while sophistication glances the other way, then beers in Jalan Jaksa (Jaksa Street) and then we were off home, confused, bewildered, slightly disorientated but happy.

Why Jalan Jaksa? Angke wanted to take us to the place where the bule (white people) hang out. She thought it would be nice for us. Considerate girl… she’ll go far.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Trying to get under the skin of Jakarta

I was trying to think what to call this post, and I suppose ‘trying to get under the skin’ is about as close as I can get to the reason why two white blokes were following an Indonesian teenager round an itinerary written by a Jakarta pop princess.

If that sentence doesn’t make sense, then you’ve started at the wrong point in this thread… go back two posts and start again for the full picture, I can’t face trying to explain it all in a sentence. Sorry.

So where did we leave off… oh yes, the driver was just leaving the Intercontinental Hotel. Pretty soon we were in a fairly scruffy part of town where we stood out a mile. At last! We were in a place where Europeans stood out! There was no air-conditioning, and no-one opened the door for me.

We were in Pasar Benhill, a busy market that seemed to sell everything that didn’t cost more than £10. I didn’t like to take photos here, as I felt very conspicuous and not 100% safe. Angke bought us ave (a fried pancake with coconut in the middle) from a street stall.

Man with pancake. Potential for
food poisoning not shown
The one thing you’re told in every guidebook to Indonesia is not to eat any food from a stall – European stomachs aren’t able to cope with it – but at this stage I knew it would be rude to refuse, and besides, it was fried… what could possibly go wrong? Should anyone ask you, by the way, the local Sundanese name is kue tetek. Now you know. What did it taste like? A coconut crepe, I suppose. What did you expect?

The market was amazing – a real smorgasbord of smells, sights and sounds, but all painted in dirty, dull, dusty colours. The smells all had a tang of hard work and the sounds weren’t cheerful – they were real working sounds. Children and cats wandered around unconcerned by the noise and local people worked and sat and stared in equal numbers.

Tanah Abang
One (bottled) iced tea later and again we were off. This was like going to where the other half shops – Tanah Abang. This was a classic shopping arcade on 7 levels, each level with a different theme – shoes or bags or ladies’ clothes or whatever.

Our driver drove up about 400 floors to park. Eventually he found a parking space, just before the point at which we needed an oxygen chamber to be able to breathe. This space was only blocking in three other cars, but we casually got out and walked away.

Contemplating purchases
in Tanah Abang. Or escape.
Either is likely.
‘What happens if any of them want to leave before we do?’ I asked casually. ‘Oh, that’s OK,’ said Angke, ‘he’s left the handbrake off so they can push the car out of the way’. Well that’s all right, then. Can you imagine leaving a car with the handbrake off in London? Me neither.

In Tanah Abang, I was most fascinated by the huge range of Batik and the incredible amount of fake designer goods on sale. Batik is a traditional pattern used in Indonesia. Rather like paisley, it’s a style rather than a specific material, colour or form. I really like it, but I know I’d look like a twonk wearing it, so I won’t. The fake brand I really liked was a range of suitcases labelled ‘Samnosite’. Who wouldn’t be fooled by that?

Angke also let us know, in conversation, that the hardest part of her job was that during her long shifts she was required to stand up most of the time, and the hotel insisted that she wear high heels. That was what really got to her. Me too.

Let's do tourist
Next to Monas. This is about the only area of green space in Jakarta, with the national monument – a flame atop a high pillar (sound like another monument somewhere else?). Apparently when it was first designed, President Sukarto wanted the design to be in the form of a linga and a yoni. That's a penis and a vagina. Looks like he got half his own way. I'd love to have seen his blueprint...
I love this statue,
but sadly I've no idea
what it is

We stayed here for a while, me trying to keep out of the sun, watching the kite flying that takes place here every day.

Grass! In Jakarta! It's a miracle!

Time for lunch at Restaurant Dapur Sunda. We drove for ages to get here. Apparently Angke’s mother is Sundanese, and this is the local racial grouping, so we had to try the food. Had to. In case you’re wondering, my colleague had Gourame fish, battered, which tasted just like classic (good) fish and chips such as you might get in a decent seaside town in England, and I had Ayam Goprek Bakar, grilled chicken in a peanut sauce.

Helpful advice in the restaurant
toilet. And to think that for all
these years...
Angke insisted that we try Rujak Serut (fruit with spicy peanut sauce), which was seriously strange, but rather nice. Try putting small slices of fruit into crunchy peanut butter, make it more liquid by adding fruit juice, then add Tabasco. Wow.

Being the drunkard I am, I also asked for a bottle of the local beer, Bintang. The bottle that arrived was possibly the biggest bottle in the world, so I knew that my participation in the afternoon was endangered.

Where next? As we were in the area, the other examiner suggested that we drop in on Angke’s parents. That turned out to be very strange indeed… more next time.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Jakarta in a day

Those of you who read the last blog will know that I was about to set off – with another examiner – with the lovely Angke on a guided day trip round Jakarta. You’ll also remember that I described her physically in glowing terms.

Let me adapt what I said then; firstly the name Angke was actually her version of a shortened version of ‘Angela’, but with a hard ‘g’. I’m not sure how to write that – Anggy? That just looks strange, so I’m going to stick to Angke if you don’t mind. Or even if you do mind.

The second most striking thing was that taking her out of her work clothes – if you see what I mean – turned her into any other 18 year old. Attractive enough, yes, but nonetheless just another 18 year old who had volunteered to take two middle-aged foreigners round the city. Someone the same age as my daughter was trusting someone as potentially dodgy as me. And a friend.

The third most striking thing was that when we met in the hotel lobby at 11am, the other examiner and I asked if we should look for a taxi, or whether the hotel had organised one for us. Oh no, said Angke, we were going to go in her car. Her car? But;
    1. she was 18, working as an intern in a hotel – how would she be able to afford a car?
    2. we were standing in the lobby of a hotel with no car in sight
    3. driving in Jakarta is only for the insane
She soon put us right. It was fine, she said, her driver was going to take us round for the day. Would it be ok if we went round in a Honda City? Her driver? And there was a choice of car? There were now far too many questions and the other examiner and I tried to avoid catching each other’s eyes, but this was promising to be, well, interesting.

Angke's driver. Racing goggles not shown
Her driver turned up outside the hotel and we all piled in. Our itinerary was simple: this other examiner had found an article in an English language newspaper written by some Javanese pop princess about what her perfect day would be if she were to spend it in Jakarta. That would form our plan of campaign. Visit those places.

As we set off, I tried a few simple sentences in Indonesian and asked a couple of questions. Angke was impressed… my Indonesian accent was very good, apparently, and didn’t sound English at all.

I relaxed… here, clearly, was a girl who showed good taste, discretion, and was prepared to lie in order to be polite. Things were looking up.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Putting off the clouds...

Well: I said I’d write about clouds – and I will – but I’ve changed my mind. Since there’s a chance that people are reading this in order to gain some wonderful insight into the life of an examiner in Indonesia, I thought I really ought to satisfy that want.

I suppose to understand the situation here, you have to know something of the Indonesian people. I’ll save most of that for a later blog, when I’ve got more experience of them, but for the time being it’s enough to know that they’re unfailingly polite and respectful. Being an Associated Board examiner here gives you a meretricious aura of wisdom and authority that it’s hard not to enjoy.
My welcome at Murni Music Centre. Note the spelling mistake, which was corrected two days later...

Also, the cynic in me suggests that the people who run these centres make a tidy sum of money out of the ABRSM (which I’m sure they thoroughly deserve), so it’s in their interests to make us feel as important and appreciated as possible.

Another examiner and I flew out from Heathrow on the same flight. When we got to passport control at Jakarta, a representative was waiting for us on the ‘wrong’ side of the desks. Ignoring the queues, he took our passports, ushered us through a diplomatic channel, and told us to go straight to baggage control. With only the briefest look to check some verisimilitude with our passport photos, the security guards let us through.

A large people carrier then whisked us into central Jakarta where – at the prestigious Intercontinental Hotel – we were not allowed to do anything as mundane as check in, or take our baggage to our rooms. That was all dealt with while we sat in the bar drinking complimentary gin and tonics.

The other examiner had carelessly picked up the wrong suitcase at Jakarta airport and had walked off with it: it was only the hotel receptionist who noticed that the name on the luggage didn’t match the name on the passport. In the real world, that would be a disaster (imagine the person whose luggage had been taken, forlornly watching the wrong bag going round and round the carousel), but oh dear me, not here, oh no.

Details were softly taken in hushed tones, phone calls were made and as we sat and chatted, the correct suitcase turned up, with nary a comment. Quite, quite extraordinary.

I hope that’s gone some way to set the scene and provide some context to what it feels like to be an examiner here.

Tomorrow the lovely Angke (receptionist at the hotel, aged 18, visage like a 50s Hollywood model, tall as a Greek statue, shapely legs making up about two thirds of her height, light as an angel, braces on her teeth) will take myself and another examiner round Jakarta to show us her favourite areas of the city. What happens then will decide whether the next blog is continuing this thread or starting another, entirely unrelated one.

See you then… I hope…


I feel like I’ve got something out of my system with that last rant about the long haul flight from London to Singapore, so as this blog’s Fotherington-Thomas yin to last blog’s Victor Meldrew yang, here’s a little about the extraordinary joy that was the short haul flight from Singapore to Jakarta.

It all started with the clouds. I don’t know whether it was something about the weather, the fact that we were just over the equator, the height we were at relative to the clouds, or just some happy circumstance of nature, but it was the most wonderful display of collections of 10 micron suspended water droplets that I’ve ever seen.

That, coupled with the easy view of the many islands as we flew over, entirely changed my mood. The books say that ‘Indonesia has between 13,000 and 17,000 islands’. Between? Between? That means they’re not sure of the whereabouts of up to 4,000 islands. That sounds more like something out of the Lost City of Atlantis, or some of the stranger meanderings of Terry Pratchett.

Even the names of clouds are evocative; cirrus, cumulus, nimbus and their conjuncts cirro-stratus, cumulo-nimbus and so on, roll off the tongue, the pen and the qwertyuiop in a meteorological wave of assonance and resonance with soft elegance and easy charm. Who wouldn’t be a weatherman?

  • Note to self: do not attempt to describe something that’s been done before, better, by master wordsmiths. For example, do not, under any circumstances, attempt to describe the suicidal ramblings of an orphaned Danish Prince or the remarkable sensation of eating biscuits your grandmother used to make.
I’m afraid I’m going to ignore my own advice. In spite of some of the most wonderful literary landscape artists having already turned their hands to describing weather, in the next blog I’m going to have a go. Wish me luck. I just need a day to prepare myself. Wish me luck.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Flying. It's boring. Boring boring boring.

Flying is boring. There, I’ve said it and you can’t make me unsay it. Flying is boring.

It is, of course, ridiculous. Here’s the case for the defence:
  • You’re six or seven miles up in the air, travelling at speeds that it’s hard to imagine – approaching 1000 kilometres an hour (hey, isn’t that 1 megametre? now there’s a word you don’t find in everyday use) or 600mph in old money;
  • You have free access to about 50 or 60 films, 100 TV programmes, countless CDs, playlists and spoken books;
  • You of course brought your iPod, 2 magazines and a ‘worthy’ book that you know you must get round to reading, and isn’t a long flight just the time;
  • They handed you a free paper when you got on, they feed you and supply you with limitless alcohol, and yet, and yet, and yet…
Here’s the case for the prosecution:
  • You’re bored. B.O.R.E.D.
I rest my case.

There’s something about the constant low-grade hum, the atmosphere and the size of the seats that just contrive to suck all the life-force out of every human being trapped in that flying torpedo.

[While we’re on the subject of low-grade hum, that in itself should be pretty amazing. You’re maybe as little as ten metres from an engine powerful enough to casually toss 160,000kg (hey, hey, hey… 160 MEGAGRAMMES!) of metal into the air and keep it up in the stratosphere, and all you can hear is ‘a low grade hum’. Wow. Big deal, Mr Think-You’re-So-Clever Jet Engine. Frank Whittle’s great invention reduced to a low grade hum. Ha.]

My 12 hour flight to Singapore had at least two wonderful distractions to add some interest. Firstly a 2½ hour wait on the tarmac while they tried to work out whether it was safe to fly (which was at least encouraging), and then 3 babies who took it in turns to entertain the passengers with assorted cries, moans and expressions of pain and anguish that would have put a Greek chorus to shame.

Between the three of them they covered most of those 12 hours. Thanks guys, at least that provided me with some sort of visceral reality to hang on to during those otherwise emotionally sterile 12 hours. 12 hours. 12 boring hours. I’ll never get them back, you know.

In case you’re interested, I never even started that worthy book. There’s always the flight back.