Saturday, May 15, 2004

Friday Night

Friday night comes along and it’s the night when I am usually so tired all I can do is collapse in front of the TV and vegetate for a few hours. But before I do, there is one thing I have become accustomed to. The massage, a delightful tradition of Indonesia. It’s a luxury in Aussie, but here it’s a way of life, and a damn good one. But, and there is a big ‘but’ here. You do hear the stories of propositions being made, and do have to be careful of the places you go to. Usually the massage places with a hair salon attached are safe, but the ones with a bar are not. A good way of separating the sleaze from the beneficial.

Usually I head down the road, within walking distance there are 4 massage parlours, all run with efficiency, good hygiene and extremely good masseuses. Male masseurs are just not in evidence, massages are the province of the women here, a tradition that has been passed down from mother to daughter through the ages. It's an accepted part of life and is seen as being the most beneficial way to keeps one health. The western connotations of massage as being somewhat dubious just dont apply here, instead you'll find both men and women checking in for a body overhaul.

It takes awhile to find a place you like, the right masseuse for you, some are too soft, some too hard, some have no idea of the musculature of the body and just get into the massage with pain rippling consequences. There is one place I normally go to, a place just down from the apartments. I’m lucky in that I’ve found this great masseuse, Mary, late thirties, hands like steel and she knows how to dig in and get out every knot buried within. I tip her well for her massage, thus she is always delighted to see me. Sometimes it’s a 90 minute massage (AU$14.00), but if I’m very tired, I’ll opt for the 2 hours (AU$17.00), and eventually drift off into sleep as she works me over.

“Mr!” They cry when they see me, and usually all the girls in the hair salon come out to see what’s going on (the hair salon is downstairs, the massage is upstairs) and then I’m royally escorted to the second level and led into a quiet area of subdued lighting and soft piped music. There are six cubicles here, all surrounded by long floor sweeping curtains between each table. You step in, undress (and yes, you leave the jocks on) then stretch out face down on a massage table. Mary comes in quietly, murmurs a hallo, then proceeds to give me a massage from toes to head. There is quite an art to the massage, it starts with a dry massage, that is, the body is worked over until things start to loosen. Then the oil is brought out and intensive muscle kneading commences. The whole body is reworked, toes to fingers to head.

By the time she has finished I am dozing off, there are times when the massage can be painful, the first couple of times I went I could hardly walk home, my calves felt as if they had been through a mincer, but after awhile your body becomes accustomed to it, or maybe its just that the kinks and knots ever present are finally worked away. She finishes, slaps my shoulders that all is done and I lay there for a moment recovering, every muscle worked over and feeling totally relaxed. Once I’m dressed, she brings in a hot cup of ginger tea, (good for all sorts of things I’m told) then I totter off home to sleep extremely well that night.

My brothers are planning on coming out to Jakarta in December. I’m planning on putting them under Mary’s hands, it will change their attitude to Friday forever :)

Life as it is at the moment

My better half and the lil one have returned to Australia to wait for the impending birth of lil one mark two, as the better half can not travel after 34 weeks pregnancy by plane (airline rules) so she had to leave somewhat early. It's quiet here, rattling around the apartment, now devoid of noise and chatter and high pitched laughter and the occasional admonition from the better half for the lil one to ‘play nicely’ or ‘don’t do that’ or 'what do you want for lunch' (which is met with a long and interesting discussion of the pros and cons of whats on offer, normally settled with her favourite, chocolate peanut butter sandwich), ...all those familiar sounds one comes accustomed to are gone...leaving in their place the hum of the computer, at times the inane chatter of TV left on for company or news, or music to ease the solitary nights..

So one does what one has to do, that is, go wandering round the streets of Jakarta and watch and learn, seeing new things everyday and storing them away for reflection at a later time. During the week there isn’t much time, the day finishes quite late and by the time you’re home and had a beer to unwind, the evening has started and a few hours before bed...so its up to the weekends to make up for the quiet nights during the week.

I try to get out and about over the weekend, see what’s going on, wander the streets, chat to locals, and see different sights… its all good, all interesting.

I stop at a hotel to get out of the heat for a moment and prop up a bar, have a cold beer and look around. Well heeled Chinese businessmen cluster in groups around the tables, mobile phones constantly going off, cups of tea and coffee in front of them, cigarette smoke swirling lazily into the air, the bar is hazy with their smoke, Chinese seem to be constant puffers, a tool to wave around, point with, and clasp between lips to one side; the cig is held almost effeminately, between the last two fingers of the right hand.

They all ignore me, but that’s okay, it’s just interesting to watch and ponder. This is a group of people who have suffered enormously under Indonesian rule, yet also have prospered mightily, they have wealth beyond the average Indonesians dreams, they have economic clout, and they are also marginalized. A strange mix.

Heading out into the sun again I hail an ojek, a motorbike which will take you anywhere for a price. It’s fast, cheap and…totally hair rising. You duck in and out of traffic, coming close to total oblivion so many times that in the end you relax and give yourself over to whatever gods you think will provide the best protection, and settle back and enjoy the sheer rush of craziness. We wheel in and around cars, hit congestion and scrape through by a centimeter or so, then roar off again when the road clears a bit. The horn is used constantly, but its effect is most probably negligible. When we get to where we are going, I get off, hand him 5000 rupiahs (AU$1.00 = RP6500.00), a sum that seems to be the constant for catching ojeks, and wander off again.

More sights beckon.

The Cab Ride

On Saturday I went to Mangga Dua, a large shopping precinct to wander around and just see what people are up to.

The cab ride there was interesting and somewhat humbling. We got to chatting, the driver and I, about life, families, and as usual, the general state of the economy and the upcoming elections. He is around my age I discover, with three children and a wife who live about three hours drive away. He tries to see them every week but at times his working hours make it impossible. This driver tells me he started work at 4pm, and will continue working until 1.30 pm the following day. How do you stay awake I ask? He shrugs...you get used to it. He tells me he is trying to save up enough money to get his kids a TV and pay for some things around the family home. I think of the TVs I see at the local shopping centre, costing not much more than a days work for me, and flinch a bit. Yes, you get the sob stories all the time, drivers trying to wring a few extra notes from you at the trips end, but this time round he is so matter of fact, no self pity, no asking me if I can help, and no drawing out of the story. He seems to be genuine, we chat a bit more. Turns out that for his working three days on and two days off, it would take him around 26 months to earn what I get in a month (not that I would tell him that). No complaints though, just that its tough and when will the government change and start to look after the poor?

This is a country with no unemployment benefits, no free Medicare, no government assistance, in fact, no nothing at all. Every rupiah you earn is a rupiah that goes toward your living costs; there are no outside sources of help.

We drive past stalls on the side of the road, selling little things like cigs and tissues and chilled bottles of soft drink in an esky amongst the splutter of dirty great buses, potholed roads, filthy drains and general litter that becomes part of the scenery. I look at the usual number of people squatting about these stalls with fresh eyes, if a cab driver, a person with what is considered to be a good job earns what he does, what on earth would these people get? How do they live? A small child still in her somewhat tattered school uniform runs up to the window of the cab, shaking a small rattle, hand outstretched. I slide the window open a few inches and giver her a note, the equivalent of 20cents. The driver looks at me disapprovingly and sure enough, before the lights change we are surrounded by a mob of small children, hands outstretched, some are no older than my lil one. I look at one small child, about 4 years of age, and she smiles cheekily at me, then remembers she is supposed to have a forlorn expression on her face and tries to change, but to no avail. There is a sparkle in her eye, and she alternates between the ‘please mister’ and a show of all her teeth in a wide smile. An older child comes along and cuffs her across the head…she isn’t doing it right. My heart breaks.

We pass over a toll way, a huge structure that twists high above the ground and intersects with another, massive laneways that rise up then stretches down to meet the earth, ending up in a tangle of cars trying to fit into a three laner with six lanes of traffic. I look out the shielded window and see houses, a whole community of people, living under the toll way intersection. There are yards, houses, chooks scrambling about, and the rooftops almost look quaint except that one realizes that they are just temporary. Every time the government heaves itself to its feet and decides to do something about squatters, it sends in bulldozers to clear the houses, no regard for the people there. They go where the wind takes them, and the government has no support systems in place for them. In February, the government sent in the bulldozers to a village nearby that had built up since 1991, a huge mixture of houses and shops, a whole community that had established itself. Nearly 5000 people were evicted after their houses were destroyed. They complained, saying they had paid such and such for their land but the local government ignores them. As far as the villagers were they concerned, they had bought their land fair and square, as far the government was concerned, a property developer had come along and laid claim to the land for another high rise building. No contest. It all ends up in bureaucratic paperwork which is conveniently buried. The villagers receive a laughably small sum and are sent on their way.

Another instance. Cops and guards suddenly turn up at a local high school, lock the gates and bar anyone from entering. Turns out a developer had bought the land from the local government but no one had told the school or the local educational authorities. A bun fight ensues and it’s only when the governor realises that the education department won’t back down that they back down, unlock the gates and give a few months grace to the school. The newspapers report that the developer had swapped some land of his on the outskirts of Jakarta for the prime school land, and the governor’s hands were tied. So what they do is stall...saying that soon the school will be shifted to another location, amalgamating it with another school. Never mind that the school is a few kms away, causing hardship all around. Newspapers show the students marching triumphantly in, and all is forgiven for the moment.

It can be a pretty bleak picture of the life here for the poor. They come from far and wide hoping to make their fortunes or, at the very least, earn enough to send home back to the villages in far fling places of the archipelago. Most end up on the scrap heap, the very bottom of the rungs of humanity. Near Mangga Dua, we are caught in a jam, and pass slowly by a young fellow in dirty torn shorts and filthy t-shirt, legs and feet black with ingrained grime. He is obviously exhausted, head down on crossed arms, trying to get a few moments sleep in a quiet corner of a parking lot. Nearby sits a large wagon, two long wooden spokes running out from the front. One can imagine harnessing a bull or horse to such spokes, but instead they are pulled by the young chap. He tugs, pulls, and cajoles this cumbersome wagon through the streets picking up garbage. I have no idea where he goes or what he is paid. All I can do is glance at him and thank the gods that I am not he.

His face as he suddenly lifts up and looks at me is devoid of expression, but he is probably in his early twenties. This is the sort of job he as a young boy aspired to? This is the sort of life he envisioned for himself? This is the work that his mother dreamt of as she carried him in her selendang* and crooned lullabies? And to think there are thousands, millions, just like him in this country that is overflowing in a wealth of natural resources.

The sad stories of the poor could furnish a whole series of books, not just a page here. I won’t even try. Suffice to say that there are times when we as westerners, living in our comfortable houses in our clean streets in our well run cities, should step back and realise that we are extraordinarily lucky. By some stroke of fate, geography and racial persuasion, there is little to compare our lives with the lives of those who live in the streets of Jakarta.

(*sarong worn over the shoulder to hold a baby)


Wednesday, May 05, 2004

A True Traffic Fact on Jakarta

Jakarta only has 7,500 km of road and must accommodate 4.7 million vehicles. If average vehicle is 3m, and 50% of all vehicles are on the road, it would be bumper to bumper traffic.

Now I know why I was stuck in that jam for two hours last week...

Jakarta enforces seat belt law, 12 years after it was passed (AFP): Twelve years after a law was passed forcing drivers to wear seat belts, police in the Indonesian capital Jakarta on Wednesday began enforcing it. "We are, starting today, enforcing the law that requires drivers and front-seat passengers to wear seat belts," said a national police spokesman, Zainuri Lubis. Jakarta drivers who refuse to belt up could face a fine of up to one million rupiah (115 dollars) or up to a month in jail. Several other Indonesian cities will soon follow suit. Others, such as the second largest city of Surabaya in East Java, have already enforced the law. The government in 1998 announced plans to enforce the 1992 law but drivers complained they could not afford to fit belts amid an economic crisis. Despite Wednesday's belated crackdown, owners of cars without seat belts have been given until November 2005 to install them.

The common thinking here is that cops are after their annual payrise and the government can't afford it,....thus they will have to collect it themselves


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