Saturday, June 28, 2003

Reading Tea

I want to catch up on my reading this weekend. Been enjoying Smart Mobs by Horward Rheingold but I've been reading too slowly lately. I often use the bits and pieces of time - while waiting for my food to arrive and immediately after finishing eating - to do my reading. On weekends I'll park myself in a quiet cafe and spend one to two hours there engrossed in my book, while I sip a cup of tea.

I'm not particularly fond of American-styled coffee and hence I avoid places such as Starbucks or Coffee Bean. I prefer the old-fashioned kopi-tiam which serves good milk tea. This is rare in Jakarta. In fact people here normally drink local tea without sugar or milk. While "teh" would normally mean tea with condensed milk in Malaysia and Singapore, here one can hardly find a cafe that serves a smiliar cuppa - sometimes they don't even keep any milk! The kopitiam teh or the mamak teh tarik is what I miss most from home, since living here in Jakarta. But I have found at least one cafe opposite my hotel that serves Chinese-style tea with milk - the Arobusta cafe. It is one of my favourite haunts during the weekends. And I've spent many happy hours there reading and typing into my Jornada.

The worst places to drink tea are at Western cafes where they would just give you a cup of hot water with a Lipton teabag on the saucer - not even bothering to mix them together. But there are other delights in Jakarta - kopi tubruk (the local coffee with lots of sediments) and es jeruk (local orange juice). Or I can always go for a bottle of cheap Bintang beer.

A good cup of mlked tea with a good book. That'll make my weekend.

Friday, June 27, 2003

A Good Friday Evening

Everyone is happy and relaxed on Fridays. People go to the office in casuals; the Muslims go for their prayers during lunchtime; the non-Muslims, a long lunch break; everyone beams at the thought of a weekend ahead, with plans for clubbing, outings or simply catching up on lost sleep.

I'm not much of a clubber these days but occassionally I'd join my friends for a drink or two at the pub opposite the office called Matabar. It is quite a pleasant place if you go there early - before the singer starts crooning the latest MTV hits and ruin the relaxed ambience.

Once in a while, if there are visitors from Malaysia or Singapore, I'd take them to the nightspots in the Chinatown area, known locally as Kota. I am extremely aversed to noisy places, hence I avoid places with live bands. I cannot understand why people would want to have their eardrums abused by over-enthusiastic bands who mangle the latest hits and harass the poor audience to sing or clap along, adding to the already unbearable cacophony.

Gone are my days of clubbing at the Betelnut, DV8, Uno, Pyramid and Picadilly and other popular nightspots in KL and PJ. Except for DV8 (which surprising is still around), all these places are already gone. Even in Singapore, I do not patronise popular nightspots such as Zouk or Brix, preferring quieter places such as Harry's Bar at Boat Quay or hotel lounges. A relaxed glass of beer or wine with close friends is all I look forward to these days. Here in Jakarta, sometimes I'll go for a couple of Bintangs (the local beer) with my colleague at one of the cafes along Jalan Jaksa, the backpacker's alley.

Because I'm still single, people sometimes forget that I do not belong to their age group anymore. The twenty-somethings in the office are always trying to drag me to the latest hotspot in town: places such as Blowfish or Burgundy. These are the places to see and be seen. It seems rather pointless to me - I have already done enough clubbing for the past ten years. I'd rather go back early to my hotel room, have a warm shower, watch Crime Night on the Discovery Channel and slowly sip a glass of Merlot. That's a good Friday evening for me.

Thursday, June 26, 2003

The Hotel: My Home, My Palace, My Monastery

One of the most common questions people ask me is: Why don't you get an apartment instead of staying in a hotel? People are often surprised that I've been calling a budget hotel my home in Jakarta for one-and-a-half years. Loneliness, claustrophobia, boredom and lack of privacy are some of the common fears for people not wanting to stay long term in a hotel. They cannot imagine how I could live, "holed up" in a small room.

I've often quipped that I consider the whole hotel my "house", and all the hotel employees, my friends and family members. And I have a retinue of servants to answer to my every whim and fancy. Living in such "opulence" and "luxury", why would anyone want to stay in a pretentious looking expatriate condominium 1 hour away from the city together with bules (Mat Sallehs) and their noisy kids who are forever splashing in the swimming pools?

I go back to my room everyday with my bed freshly made and my clean laundry hanging in my closet. I never need to lift a finger whenever I go out to catch a cab to work in the morning - the porter will rush down the streets to hail me one. And if I feel lonely, I can always chit-chat with Diki at the concierge, Marlyn at the reception or Wiwik from the sales department. Every morning I'm greeted cheerfully by the housekeeper Intan who keeps my room well-stocked with mineral water and coffee. And if I feel like it, I'll drop by at the restaurant downstairs for my complimentary buffet breakfast or hop into the gym for a workout and a relaxing session in the sauna.

Convenience aside, I have other personal reasons for staying in a hotel: it makes my life simpler. Everything I own can be packed into two or three suitcases. It helps me to maintain an austere discipline and forces myself not to accumulate unnecessary things and to keep them uncluttered. From previous experiences staying in an apartment or a house, packing up after a long stay can be quite a nightmare. The less space you have, the more orderly you become.

I like to think of myself as living the life of a Benedictine monk in a secluded monastery. The Seven Storey Mountain by the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton and The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris give good accounts of the monastic life. A quiet life of studies and contemplation is what I seek these days. My small hotel room serves that purpose very well. Every night I spend quiet moments in my "cell" writing, reading and typing into my Jornada PDA. Ocassionally I would stare out of my glass window into the night speckled with neon lights: deep in the bowels of the city, the night pulsates with sin and excitement - hawkers and hookers strolling the alleyways, junkies gyrating trance-like in smoky techno-clubs and ubiquitous taxi-drivers touting for customers outside every nightspot.

And I have my home sweet home right here in the middle of all this seediness - a sanctuary of peace in the Capital of Sin.

Wednesday, June 25, 2003

My CyberGuru

I'm not a Hindu but for many years I was a regular visitor to a Hindu cyber-monastery, reading and listening to sermons of the late Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami who passed away (attained Mahasamadhi) on November 2001. The site is updated daily by the monks in this Hindu monastery physically located on the beautiful island of Kauai in Hawaii. The late Satguru - affectionately known as "Gurudeva" - had been a leading figure in the Hindu world, responsible for raising the religion to greater heights, especially in the Western world.

What is surprising about Gurudeva is that he was an American, orphaned at a young age and started out as a classical and ballet dancer! Responding to his spiritual calling, he later went to India and Sri Lanka and tutored under the great Saivite Hindu guru Yogaswami. Gurudeva had since founded the Hinduism Today magazine and had written many books about the religion besides conducting his many retreats, speeches and sermons all over the world.

I first became acquainted with Gurudeva when I chanced upon his book, Merging with Siva at a new age bookstore in Mountain View, California in 1999. It was a thick book which I started reading then in the US, and continued doing so when I was back in Singapore for the duration of almost a year - slowly sipping and digesting the profound insights and wisdom embedded in this magnificent piece of work. The book changed my perception of life and deepened my understanding of religions. I have always been a student of yoga philosophy and eastern religions and read widely on all these subjects. Gurudeva's Merging with Siva expounds many religious concepts already known to me but it was done with such lucidity and beauty of expression, with an underlying voice that is wise, serene and compassionate that reading the book through those days and months in Mountain View and Singapore, I felt like I had gone through an intense spiritual transformation.

Merging with Siva is the book that I keep on my bedside, even here in Jakarta. I dip into it every now and then to gain fresh insights into Gurudeva's writings. Everytime I read his words, I understand something new. Like a scalpel of the psyche, Gurudeva's words help me to penetrate deeper and deeper into the inner layers of my mind and soul. I now view things and events with a keen intuitive perspective. It is a process of spiritual flowering. And my soul unfolds a little bit more everyday, watered by the transcendent genius of Gurudeva.

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Dotcommed & Dazed

Last week when I was in KL drinking teh tarik with my friends, we bumped into one of the key figures of the dotcom phenomena in this region. This former owner of a high-flying dotcom company was treated like a celebrity at a time when the dotcoms could do no wrong. The whole industry then was caught up in a frenzy of public listings and stock options. He told us that he is now divorced and broke. A casualty of the dotcom crash.

The years between 1995 to 2000 were heady years of growth for the IT industry. It was a life of excitement and excess for all of us who were part of that boom. The corporate battle cries, the lavish stock options, the glitzy roadshows and the prospect of forging into brave new frontiers of cyberspace caught all of us up in a heady spin. No one wanted to be left behind: you are either a dotcom or you are part of the "old world". Everyone wanted to jump on the bandwagon. It did not matter how dotcoms were supposed to make money; hits and hypes were good enough indicators of future earnings. Paradigm change became the excuse for being unconventional. It was one long and wild party; one that finally ended with a thud and a lingering hangover.

We are still trying to recover from that hangover now. Many are still in a daze. And we are staring ahead not into brave new frontiers anymore but a wasteland of pessimism and cynicism. Like all battle-hardened warriors though, we would pick up the pieces and trudge on. Who knows, maybe further down the horizon there is another brave new world waiting for us?

Monday, June 23, 2003

The Buccaneer's Home

What a feeling to be back in Jakarta yesterday. After a week of relentless work, I have forgotten about the world I had left behind - the throng of people in malls, the smoky aroma of hawker stalls and the tumult of vehicles in the streets. Arriving back at the hotel was like homecoming with all the simple pleasures of familiar things.

I was tired but I still had some work left. I managed to dash off to Sarinah to shop for some fruits and juices and then hopped into Bakmi Toko Tiga for my favourite sapi cah kangkung with rice. A warm shower back in my room and I was back in front of my laptop, finishing my remaining work. The last files from KL was received only after 1.00am, and I spent another hour entering them into my spreadsheets. Only then did I collapse on my bed and slept like a baby.

Sometimes I wonder if I will ever have the heart to leave Jakarta for good. But life is full of unexpected turns. I've lived in Penang, KL, Singapore and Jakarta. Who knows where I'll end up next?

Everytime I'm back in KL, I feel a bit like the buccaneer Simon Danz in Longfellow's poem A Dutch Picture, home from one of his many adventures in the seas . The poem begins:
Simon Danz has come home again,
From cruising about with his buccaneers;
He has singed the beard of the King of Spain,
And carried away the Dean of Jaen
And sold him in Algiers.


and ends with these lines:
Restless at times with heavy strides
He paces his parlor to and fro;
He is like a ship that at anchor rides,
And swings with the rising and falling tides,
And tugs at her anchor-tow.

Voices mysterious far and near,
Sound of the wind and sound of the sea,
Are calling and whispering in his ear,
Simon Danz! Why stayest thou here?
Come forth and follow me!"

So he thinks he shall take to the sea again
For one more cruise with his buccaneers,
To singe the beard of the King of Spain,
And capture another Dean of Jaen
And sell him in Algiers.