Saturday, July 26, 2003

Mexican food with the Betawi and Javanese

Titi bought us dinner for her birthday last night at the Amigos Cafe, a popular Mexican restaurant located opposite Sarinah. There were six of us: Ahmez, Maria, Shirley, Titi, Krisna and myself. Some of them, like Titi were past employees of Ibis Hotel, where I have been staying for over one-and-a-half years.

Ahmez was telling me that he is a pure Betawi - born and bred in Jakarta. We had an interesting conversation about the differences between the Betawi, Javanese and Sundanese (which I had touched upon in an ealier blog entry). He told me that Betawi people are rougher and more aggressive than the polite and class-conscious Javanese. Titi is a Christian Javanese but her husband is a Muslim Sundanese. Both of them still practice their own separate religions - something that is unheard of in Malaysia.

I ordered a large Baja Burrito even though I am not exactly very fond of Mexican food. Indonesians eat everything with rice - even the MacDonalds and KFCs here serve rice. They even eat instant noodles (Indomie) with rice. But last night Titi asked for the rice that comes with her Burrito to be replaced with french fries!

When the band started playing, I was engrossed in watching the Malaysia-Chelsea match in the FA Premier League Asia Cup that was being shown on the TV at the far corner of the stage. Even from quite a distance, I could see that the Malaysian team in yellow was being outplayed by their more illustrious London opponents. However the match report I read this morning showed the match to be quite even until half-time where the score was tied at 1-1. Only a late 20 minute blitz by Chelsea made the scoreline a lopsided 4-1 in their favour.

After the dinner ended at around 9.45pm, I walked back to my hotel. The night was just coming alive - I could see the crowd milling outside Hard Rock Cafe at Sarinah. Titi and friends were good company but the Mexican food wasn't satisfying enough. As I walked home, I promised myself a good Sundanese lunch the next day. Which is exactly what I'm planning to do after this - at Ayam Goreng Priangan.

Friday, July 25, 2003

Travelling with Theroux

I enjoy reading travel books and those by Paul Theroux I find most enjoyable. I was delighted to find an article about him in the Life section of Singapore's Straits Times today.

In the e-mail interview with the writer of the article, he was understandably a lot more diplomatic in his views about Singapore and Singaporeans than what I have read from his books. Theroux was a lecturer at the University of Singapore during the late sixties and he also wrote a fiction - Saint Jack - set in the Singapore of that era.

Having lived in Singapore before, Theroux is also familiar with Malaysia and has written interesting short articles and stories set in the Malaysia of the sixties and early seventies. His book, The Consul's File is a collection of related short stories about the adventures of an American consul based in - of all places - the town of Ayer Hitam in Johor! He also made some rather unflattering observations about the sultan (nicknamed "Buffles") of a particular Malaysian state. That article can be found in his book, Sunrise with Seamonsters.

In The Great Railway Bazaar, he wrote about his experiences travelling by train from his home then in England across Europe and the mainland of Asia, down to Singapore before hopping over to Japan and Russia for the Trans-Siberian Express home to the West again. That book made him well-known and established him as the leading travel writer of our time.

Diehard fans of Sir VS Naipaul will hate Theroux for his frank depiction of the Nobel prize winnning writer in his book Sir Vidia's Shadow which detailed their friendship over a period of 30 years, spanning five continents and how it finally came to a bitter end.

Having read so many of his books, I feel like I've known Theroux quite well: I've travelled together with him by train across China in Riding the Red Rooster, chugged along with him on The Old Patagonian Express in South America, hitchhiked around the British Isle in Kingdom by the Sea, island hopped on his kayak in The Happy Isles of Oceania and recently accompanied him on an inland journey down the African continent in Dark Star Safari.

His veiled semi-fictional autobiographies: My Secret History and My Other Life are also very engrossing reads. Strangely I am more attracted to his non-fiction books than some of his fictional ones - which are also highly acclaimed, like The Mosquito Coast (which was made into a successful movie starring Harrison Ford).

Paul Theroux is in his sixties now but I hope he continues travelling. He is indeed my favourite travel companion.

Thursday, July 24, 2003

Bobos and Bums at Jalan Jaksa

I have known my friend Setiawan since I started coming to Jakarta in the mid-nineties. We had our best time before the Asian Financial Crisis and the riots of 98; we worked hard and played hard: busting our asses during the day and painting the town red at night. To paraphrase Dickens, the last eight years have been the best of times and the worst of times.

These days Setiawan and I meet ocassionally to catch up over a quiet nasi padang dinner and a couple of slow beers. And last night somehow we ended up drinking at a pub along Jalan Jaksa.

The Jalan Jaksa area is a backpacker's haven: Filled with cheap guest houses, hotels and restaurants, most of the budget bule (Mat Salleh) travellers would make a stop here, led by their trusty Lonely Planet Guide.

Sitting there watching the backpackers in their khaki shorts and worn-out T-shirts chatting up the local girls, I was filled with a sense of envy. How I wished I could bum around like them: hitch-hiking from one place to another on a shoe-string budget, without a single care in the world.

Instead we have become Bobos -- a termed coined by David Brooks in his riproaringly hilarious book, Bobos in Paradise - meaning Bourgeois Bohemians. We have become mediocre yuppies: cubicle creatures who have betrayed our youthful ideals to become willing slaves to big multi-national corporations.

Spoilt by corporate perks and entrenched in our new-found middleclass respectability, we try to bury our guilt by leading lifestyles that hint at superficial bohemian idealism: using environment-friendly Body Shop products, sending our kids to school in swanky four-wheelers, going to work in Timberland boots and khakis (pockets stuffed with the latest geek toys), and carrying our Sony laptops around in backpacks as if we are trekking across Tibet. Bourgeois Bohemians.

And there I was sitting with Setiawan, reflecting on all these things -- two Bobos guzzling Bintangs on a warm midweek night, among the bums and backpackers of Jalan Jaksa.

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Riding Si Jagur

What is the connection between the fall of Malacca to the Dutch in 1641 and the fertility of women in Jakarta?

Apparently one of the cannons captured by the Dutch from the Portuguese in Malacca was shipped to Jakarta ( then known as Batavia). This bronze cannon, affectionately known as Si Jagur has since then been surrounded by legends, and is regarded as a bit of a sacred object by the locals. Childless women used to sit astride the cannon, in the hope of boosting their fertility.

The cannon is a peculiar thing: one of its ends is sculptured into the shape of a clenched fist with a defiant thumb sticking out between the index and the middle finger (picture here). It is probably the combination of the cannon's phallic symbollism and this sexually suggestive gesture - frozen in time - which contributed to its reputation as a fertility relic.

Father Adolf Heuken's book Historical Sights of Jakarta describes an amusing anecdote about how a hopeful woman once brought her two daughters to the cannon. A year later she returned furious: only one of her daughters was pregnant - the unmarried one.

I once spent a morning trying to locate the cannon at Taman Fatahillah, in the old city of Jakarta. Though Si Jagur is well-described in every tourist guide, locating it wasn't as easy as I thought. We are told that it is situated North of the Fatahillah Square, in front of Cafe Batavia; but when one arrives at the Square, the supposedly popular landmark is not obviously evident. Only when one approaches the ramshackled stalls beside the Cafe selling tourist kitsch does one see the cannon, almost hidden by the pedlars' goods, sitting neglected like a fire hydrant.

I was glad to read a press report end of last year that Si Jagur was finally moved into the Jakarta History Museum compound - a fitting home for an object linked to so much history and legend.

I'm not sure if women still go to Taman Fatahillah to perform symbollic copulation with this giant bronze phallus. But I do know, south of the Square, in the heart of Kota, men flock to the many nightspots there to find women who would be willing to perform such acts for slightly more than a hundred thousand rupiah - without the symbollic fuss.

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Desecrating the Datacenter

This morning as I was making one of my many sojourns to the water dispenser, I caught a glimpse of our office communications equipment - router and switches - ignominiously stacked in a corner beside the pantry cabinets.

I can see that the equipments are running live, humming and panting hot-air, cables running riot like spaghetti in that forgotten corner of our office. That miserable-looking jumble of chassis and cables is in actual fact our lifeline and nervous system - the office LAN and the all-important connection to the Internet .

Because ours is still a very small office with about 50 people, there is no fulltime IT department or systems administrator to manage our internal IT needs. As offices grow bigger, usually a "computer room" with proper air-conditioning is designated for servers and communications equipments. And as companies grow even bigger and IT becomes a mission-critical part of their businesses, they will have to have their own proper datacenter (or an outsourced one, as is the trend these days).

I have spent a great portion of my IT career helping customers to architect and build datacenters. Datacenters are inhospitable places for human beings: its air-conditioning and humidity is controlled such that machines would hum along happily but not us. Within datacenters, the racks and stacks are altars to the server gods and are to be tended lovingly by us, the human beings.

Datacenters remind me of the Tabernacle of the biblical Jews - a tent-like structure where they kept their Holiest of Holies, The Ark of the Covenant. Through their wanderings in the desert the Jews carried the Tabernacle with them but only their very highest priests are allowed access into it. They are the ones who could tend to their holiest object. Datacenters should be like that.

I often advise my customers to treat the datacenter as sacred. No unauthorized person should enter a datacenter and entry should only be for reasons deemed absolutely necessary. No applications are to be installed in the datacenter unless they have gone through a rigorous production acceptance process. And once inside, everything should be controlled and monitored. How could one guarantee security and uptime if one allows his datacenter to be treated like a hacker's lab?

Whenever I get the opportunity I would always request to tour my customer's datacenter. I enjoy doing it because it is often very revealing about the company itself: The way cables are managed, the way the equipments are stacked in racks, and the way everything is labelled all leaves forensic evidence that reveals the mindset and the attitude of the people running the organization.

During the dot-com boom, I had the opportunity to visit many hosting datacenters throughout the world in the course of my work: names like Exodus (now acquired by Cable & Wireless) and Global Crossing (being acquired by ST Telemedia and Hutchinson Telecommunications) - the Internet datacenters which hosted so many of the high-flying dotcoms. Sadly most of them filed for Chapter 11 after the dot-com crash.

During their heydays these operations were models of datacenter perfection - the biometrics security, the endless array of racks and cages and the impressive lights-out management. One could see thousands of servers: electronic sentinels with lights blinking quietly in their racks, each holding a cyberworld of its own. Witnessing it is like the Chosen One finally seeing the Matrix for what it really is - rivulets of green blinking code.

The datacenter is the engine-room, the brain and the memory banks of an enteprise. The datacenter is an enterprise's Holiest of Holies. Sadly I still see many of my customers treating their datacenters in a cavalier manner. Often they use it like an extra storeroom for their broken equipment, old manuals and empty boxes. To me, it is an unpardonable act of desecration.

Monday, July 21, 2003

Revisiting 1984

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen"

With that famous first line, George Orwell began his novel about the bleak dystopia he had imagined the world in 1984 would be, back in 1949.

I read the book Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1985, having picked up a cheap commemorative paperback edition from PekanBuku at UM. It is available these days online on the Internet. Till now, it remains my favourite among the few Orwells that I have read, together with Down and Out in Paris and London, even though Animal Farm is generally considered one of the best books of the 20th century.

In the year 1984 they made a movie based on the book, starring John Hurt, Richard Burton and Suzanna Hamilton. I managed to catch it when it was shown on RTM (or it could have been TV3), a couple of years later. I think I still have a mouldy VHS recording of it stored somewhere under my bed back home in Subang Jaya.

The clocks were striking nineteen last night when I sat down at the QB World bookstore cafe in Kemang, Jakarta, sipping the remaining half of my Bintang beer, waiting for the curtains to roll for QB World's regular Sunday night art-movie treat: Nineteen Eighty-Four. It brought back a flood of memories.

First, the haunting soundtrack by Eurythmics. Strictly speaking, the album by Eurthymics bearing the same title shouldn't be called the movie's soundtrack as hardly any of the tracks were used in the movie - more like music and songs inspired by Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Some of you might remember the hit Sexcrime and the hypnotic Julia.

The casting for the movie is superb: who could have played a better Winston Smith than John Hurt? And having the great Sir Richard Burton as John Hurt's character's mentor-turned-torturer, O'Brien was a real coup. It was also Richard Burton's swansong - he passed away after completing the movie in 1984.

Big Brother, Ingsoc, Newspeak, Thoughtcrime - these are some of the intriguing elements of Orwell's vision of a totalitarian society where the state of Oceania is in perpetual war with either Eastasia or Eurasia in the tripolar world of 1984. Though the collapse of Communism in the 90s brought about a sense of optimism and temporarily erased our fears of an Orwellian future, the recent paranoia of governments towards terrorism has led to states enforcing Big Brother-like type of surveillance and policing of its citizen. Orwell's reminder still bears relevance today.

The movie, like the novel is an extremely bleak one. However its basic plot of an Adam, Winston Smith(John Hurt) and an Eve, Julia (Suzanna Hamilton) searching for an Eden away from a dehumanized society where one can be free to love and live like normal human beings is a theme that has been used many times by science-fiction writers. One is reminded of George Lucas' THX 1138 (starring Robert Duvall) and Logan's Run (starring Michael York).

Nineteen Eighty-Four, the movie, is a masterful adaptation of Orwell's book by director Michael Radford. I cannot see how Orwell's vision could have be filmed any differently. The sets, the cinematographic palette and the casting are spot-on. Even though the movie depicts a "futuristic" society, there's no Matrix sleekness here nor showy Star Trek-like vision of utopian worlds with gleaming corridors and beeping electronics; instead the sets and locations of Nineteen Eighty-Four are reminiscent of a war-ravaged Europe of the 1940s, with gadgetry that could have been inspired by relics from the Smithsonian Institution.

Movies, books and music are capsules of memories. Watching Nineteen Eighty-Four again brought everything back to me: the late eighties when I was a carefree student with no inkling of where my life would lead; not knowing that I too would someday find my Orwellian future in the cubicle catacombs of the corporate world, where any spark of individualism is akin to Thoughtcrime.

Sunday, July 20, 2003

Pleasant Sunday Morning

The weather in Jakarta is much more comfortable than KL's. I came out from the hotel today at almost noon and the sun was at full blast. But somehow it felt pleasant: there was a mild breeze in the air, and despite the pollution, the atmosphere was soothingly balmy. (Is that the reason why women here seem to have better complexion too?)

I have not made a trip to Bandung for sometime and I kind of miss those relaxing train journeys there. Which also reminds me that I have not been travelling in Indonesia, (except for the one back to KL) since my trip to Makassar. Must peruse Lonely Planet and start planning again.

What shall I be doing today? Maybe read my book at the cafe and then hop over to QB World Kemang to revisit an old movie I have watched on RTM more than a decade ago......