Saturday, January 03, 2004



Two days ago, I shifted out from the hotel where I have been staying for the past two years to a cheaper one down the road. So far I'm quite pleased with this quaint old hotel which I have chosen as my temporary home. It is very quiet compared to the previous one, which was always bustling with corporate seminars and functions.

In the lobby here, a huge grandfather's clock lets out sonorous chimes every hour; old soot-covered oil paintings adorn the walls and one could easily walk up the circular stairway to its three floors of reasonably tidy rooms. There's even a portrait of a young Sukarno overlooking the dining/breakfast area--a semi-covered courtyard with an indoor garden filled with moist shrubs and water trickling into a pond of splashing fishes. A crumbling upright piano sits silently in one corner, and everywhere else, Javanese stone statues stare out blankly.

The place has perhaps seen more glorious times. But now it is a quiet and forgotten place--perfect for my brief stay here. I needed the isolation and solitude to work on my upcoming lectures and to plan for my travels for the next two or three weeks.

I even have time for breakfast these days. Sitting there in that deserted hall, amidst empty tables and the hollow clank of cups and saucers, I feel a bit like the astronaut Bowman in the final scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey. In that very memorable sequence we see Bowman going through the mundane activity of eating as he ages progressively and finally gasping on his deathbed in front of the hovering Black Monolith. And then we see the birth of the Starchild...

Aging, transformation, rebirth. The only thing missing is Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra.

Friday, January 02, 2004

The Long Goodbye

The Long Goodbye

There was a couple hours of bright sunshine in the middle of this rainy season here in Jakarta; it was the bluest of skies and and the most brilliant of light I have seen for a long time. The rain had cleansed the air and it was a perfect day for photography.

I had walked from my hotel to the Gambir train station to purchase a ticket for my trip next week. As usual I had my camera with me and I didn't waste a second to make full use of that beautiful light. I walked towards Monas and took pictures of the monument from every angle. The grass there was also at its greenest, thanks to the rain that has not stop pouring over the past month or so. I couldn't ask for a more photogenic Monas.

Being there in Monas, I had to make my pilgrimage to the bust of Chairil Anwar, located on the northern end of the park, in front of Diponegoro's statue. I read the poem that was etched there at the base of the bust: Krawang-Bekasi. I admired his imagery of "tulang-tulang berserakan" (scattered bones) and "jam dinding yang berdetak" (ticking wall clock). That line: "Jika ada rasa hampa dan jam dinding yang berdetak" brought back memories of scenes from Wong Kar Wai's movies (especially Days of Being Wild) where wall clocks are a recurrent motif.

I stood there for a while, perhaps saying a final goodbye to Monas, which has watched over my two very happy years in Jakarta. I looked towards the trees where Fromberg Park used to be and the place where the prostitute Aminah from Pramoedya's Tjerita Dari Djakarta had called home. And I thought Chairil Anwar's bust was appropriately placed, facing this former haunt of prostitutes.

For a moment I felt sad, having finally to say goodbye to Jakarta. But I have one month to do so. And there's no better place for me to begin my long goodbye, right there in front of the bust of Chairil Anwar, beneath the most prominent landmark of Jakarta: that mammoth gold-tipped lingam that is Sukarno's Monas.

Thursday, January 01, 2004

Child at a Night Fair

Child at a Night Fair

For some reason I chose Pramoedya's It's Not an All Night Fair--the English translation of Bukan Pasar Malam, as the first book to read this year. Maybe it's because the book is rather thin, and it has been lying in my hotel room for some time. Maybe it's because it is about a journey home...

The book is a rather sad one--a semi-autobiographical account of a man's journey home to see his ailing father. Though it is a fictional account, there are many parallels between the events in the book and Pramoedya's life, as recounted in the Mute's Soliloquy: That book brought tears to my eyes when I first read it--especially the chapter about his mother's death.

One whole month of laborious technical writing has made my mind dry and rigid; I needed a dose of pathos badly to moisten my soul again. Pramoedya is a good choice because he never fails to touch me with his sensitive protrayal of the working class.

In It's Not an All Nights Fair, the protagonist has to borrow money in Jakarta to make the train journey home to Blora in East Java. After visiting his father in the hospital, he realises that his family house is also crumbling from age. An elderly neighbour gently reminds him that "if a house is falling apart, the people who live in it are falling apart too". Out of a sense of guilt and responsibility for his family home, he decides to repair the house. Again the problem of money haunts him...

In The Mute's Soliloquy, Pramoedya wrote how he spent whatever money he got from his writing to repair his family home but his wife was not happy about it. Pramoedya's sense of responsibility to his family after his parents' death was a constant source of argument with his first wife then, who felt that he was spending too much unnecessary money and attention on them. It wasn't a very happy marriage--one that inevitably ended in divorce. It was then that Pramoedya moved out from his in-law's house in Kampung Kebon Jahe Kober. (I wrote about my visit to that house in a previous blog entry)

I'm still in the process of reading "It's Not an All Night Fair" and will probably finish it by tomorrow. After that I'm not sure what I'll be reading. Now that I'm free from my work, I feel like a child at a night fair--a world of delights has just opened up itself to me. It sure feels good to be a child again, well at least for a month.

Wednesday, December 31, 2003

The Kaleidoscope of Life

The Kaleidoscope of Life

A new year is a good time to start afresh. There's a sense of renewal, a feeling of optimism that things will be better. As for me, I try to think of every day as a New Year's day. There is no time to waste; I don't really have to wait until the end of the year to reassess and rechart my future. A pilot makes many tiny adjustments during the entire course of the flight.

But still New Year's eve is a good starting point, because there's a sense of resolve in the air. We should latch on to it and ride the winds of change. The real challenge however is to maintain one's course for the rest of the year. So often we forget our resolutions and veer away from our original goals.

I have officially closed one chapter of my life and will be starting another soon. I often write about the natural rhythm of human affairs: I have been sensing the rhythm of things around me and feel it is finally time for me to move on. Without doing so I will not be renewing myself; I will not progress to my next level of transformation.

Life is an upward spiral motion of constant renewal. In Lila, Robert Pirsig's "sequel" to his beat classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he wrote of society having the tendency to slowly progress forward and then latch on to the next stable state, before something else triggers the next level of transformation.

Life progressses a bit like that too. At certain points in our lives we latch on to certain stable states, or what we call comfort zones. Remaining there however, is to invite decay. I become vary everytime I feel a bit too comfortable. My experiences have taught me that being over-attached to one's comfort zone is to be unprepared for changes that will inevitably come.

We have to transform ourselves all the time and participate in change--for that is the nature of the universe. Everytime we move forward and upward, we discover new things about ourselves. New patterns emerge. It is like peering into a kaleidoscope: rotate it, you'll see an entirely new universe.

Remember, the Kaleidoscope of Life has the potential to offer an infinity of patterns.
Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

The Rewards of Teaching

The Rewards of Teaching

I have not written anything so far about the part-time teaching that I do twice a week at a local university. I teach an information systems course for first year undergraduate students. Now that I am finally free(!) from my regular job, I can reflect a bit on my experience in teaching.

Teaching can be a very rewarding thing to do because if you do it well, you influence many people's lives. Financially speaking, the money that I get out of it is not exactly worth my time, but to me it is an opportunity to serve the community. And I am thankful for this privilege.

My students are very young--18, 20 at most. They are in many ways smarter than I was when I was their age because things like computers and Internet are already part of their everyday lives. I only learnt how to use a computer during my final year in university.

I was never a computer science or information systems student--I was an engineering geek. Everything I know about information systems is learnt through experience. So it is also very educational for me to see how a regular information systems course is taught based on the official syllabus. It amuses me sometimes to see how the subject is presented in textbooks: It is so rigid and detached from reality. I can understand why some students feel bored.

Information systems is a subject that I can teach without much preparation because I deal with it everyday in practical customer situations. But to be able to teach the subject well, one still needs to do some amout of preparation.

I usually build about 40 Powerpoint slides to fill up each two-hour lecture session. I have to think how to explain difficult concepts in a way that is easily understood. I try to illustrate them with everyday examples.

Sometimes I feel like a film director trying to determine the pacing of a two-hour movie. At which point should you hit them with the really hard facts? How do you win over the audience and set them up for the kill?

Every lesson needs to have an introduction, development, a climax and a final denouement. You have to bear in mind that the attention span of the audience waxes and wanes over the two-hour period. You have to interspede dull moments with more upbeat ones; you have to engage the audience.

I do not think I succeed very well as a teacher, but I try my best. I am perhaps a bit too lenient with my students. But I guess it is alright--they are young and will grow up to be useful individuals. At 18, you are still struggling with the demons of adolescence. It challenges me greatly to think from their point of view: Words and concepts that I'm so used to spouting in front of my customers have to be reexamined, because what is crystal clear to me may be hazy in their young minds.

Like what I've mentioned in a previous blog entry, the best way to learn is to teach. Teaching also makes me a better IT professional. I realised that what is sometimes obvious to me may not be so to my customer. Every two hour session to me is another training in public-speaking.

As a lecturer, I a get to learn so much--perhaps even more than what my students learn from me. I cannot help but be grateful.

Monday, December 29, 2003

The Purpose of Work

The Purpose of Work

Feeling exhausted after having worked through my entire Christmas holidays. Today is the first day back in the office after that four day break. The city is still quiet and empty. There's another two days of holidays coming up--31st and 1st of January 2004. I definitely won't be working on those days.

There is a spiritual purpose to work. Work is an act of worship, especially those conducted selflessly. The noblest ideal expounded by karma yoga is to do work without expecting anything in return. Through work, one is transformed spiritually; one ascends to a deeper level of understanding about oneself.

It is good if one's work brings financial rewards. All rewards are a blessing. However my greatest reward from work is seeing things happen as a result of it, being able to assist friends in the process and having the opportunity to put my creative stamp on it. Sometimes work itself is the reward.

Work can be a drag or an adventure, depending on how we look at it. At its most difficult, we can look at it as penance. Through our hardship, we become a better person. We should always be grateful for being given the opportunity to work. We define ourselves through our work.

However the challenge for most people is to find their true vocation. Not sure if I've found mine yet. Doesn't matter. At the meantime, I'll just, continue working.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

Pleasurable Choices

Pleasurable Choices

Sometimes in life, there good problems: One of them is deciding what to read next. There are so many tantalising authors and titles out there, making a decision can be very tough thing to do.

For the past month or so, I haven't seriously read any book from cover to cover. I've been dipping myself in and out of non-fictional books from my own library, reading more for information than pleasure. Time and Newsweek are also part of my regular staple.

I've refrained myself from plunging into any book because I wanted to maintain my concentration on that long report I've been struggling to finish. I am close to the finishing line now and I want to reward myself with a good read after this laborious task. I feel a bit like a student who is going through an examination and is eagerly looking forward to the long vacation after that.

Yes, my "vacation" is coming up soon. What could be more pleasurable than to be able to do some reading and travelling at the same time? I've read all the Theroux travel books that I could get my hands on. Maybe I should discover a new author that I've not read before. Colin Thubron looks promising. I've also not read any by Bruce Chatwin before. He is highly praised, even by Theroux.

Or maybe I should start reading some Graham Greene--his style seems to suit me. I've read some non-fictional works by VS Naipaul but I think I am missing a lot in life if I do not sample some of his fictional works like A House for Mr Biswas.

There are so many good authors that I have not read before. Everytime I go to a bookstore, I feel like throwing up my hands in despair. I haven't mentioned the Indonesian books that I want to attempt: Saman by Ayu Utami or maybe Arus Balik by Pramoedya Ananta Toer.

People often tell me that I'm missing a lot because I don't read Chinese. They are probably right. But I think I'll go crazy with the choices that would be available to me if I do. My sanity is more important.

We have over a hundred satellite TV channels at home but how many channels we seriously watch in a day? I think I'll just stick to my BBC and ESPN.