Saturday, April 24, 2004

Saturday Morning at Petak Sembilan

Saturday Morning at Petak Sembilan

Now that I am no longer in living in Jakarta, every opportunity here in this city is to be fully utilized. So I started my weekend very early this morning, setting off at 6.30am with Setiawan to Kota, the Chinatown of Jakarta, for some nice chicken porridge breakfast. Our plan was to spend half a day snapping pictures around Glodok. Even though the Pasar Glodok area was razed during the riots of 1998, the place is now bustling again with Chinese businesses. Nothing can dampen the industry of the Chinese--when it comes to business, the Chinese has the dogged single-mindedness of the Terminator.

So we too pursued our subjects with equal single-mindedness, aiming our lenses, sometimes obtrusively, at the food-sellers, butchers and labourers who were going through their daily affairs. We started off around the Pancoran area and moved on to Petak Sembilan, just when its wet market was bursting with early morning shoppers. It was a dizzying sight of pork, fish, turtles, frogs and all sorts of exotic meat being slaughtered and slashed in a frenzy of blood and knives. Our cameras devoured all these sights hungrily.

The Petak Sembilan alleyways were choked with all sorts of traffic--goods being carted in many directions, bicycles and motorcycles competing for passage with shoppers and pedestrians, tukang jamu in traditional Javanese dress hawking their miraculous potions and from within this stampede of humanity; here and there, the up-turned palm of a grotesquely handicapped beggar would reach out for sympathy.

Some of the oldest Chinese temples (known as "klenteng" to the locals) in Jakarta are also located around the Petak Sembilan area. I entered and explored them, with a slight nagging feeling of guilt that I was somehow intruding on their sanctity. They were all painted in gaudy red and choked with incense smoke--they looked exactly like the ones back in Malaysia. Worshippers were busy raising offerings of food and incense to the pantheon of Chinese gods. Right outside the main temple, there was a community of beggars loitering in the courtyard; a street barber was also busy mowing the hair of one of his customers right at the entrance.

I had a wonderful morning immersing myself in the atmosphere of Petak Sembilan and filling my Compact Flash card with two hundred over digital snapshots. Later during lunch, while munching tim sum with Setiawan at the Metropole Hotel along Jalan Hayam Wuruk, I began to realise how much I've missed this wonderful city.

Friday, April 23, 2004

My Lonely Nights in Bandung

My Lonely Nights in Bandung

Everyone was looking nervously at the gathering clouds in the sky today. Some of my friends who live a distance away from the city have already prepared a change of clothes and toiletries, in case, they get trapped by the traffic again like what happened on Wednesday. Friday traffic is typically worse than usual, even on a normal day here in Jakarta. I always have problems getting cabs on Fridays. And when it starts pouring heavily, all the ingredients of a perfect storm are there.

Yesterday I was finally able to read my 2000 word article, "Sukarno's Bandung" which was published in the March issue of Jakarta Kini. The hotel people managed to find a copy from their store for me. I was pleasantly surprised that the editors left every word I wrote intact but was a bit disappointed that they didn't pick the best shots from the many hi-res photos of Bandung that I submitted to them.

Instead, they published a picture of the Parahyangan Highlands which I snapped with a very high-shutter speed on a moving train, through a rain-streaked window. It didn't turn out that bad in glossy print though--in some way, maybe it did capture the cool-green mystique of the Parahyangan hills.

Researching for the article was a lot of hardwork. I had to read up a few account of Sukarno's life, Ibu Inggit's biography, historical documents about the Asian-African conference held in Bandung in 1955, and countless articles about Bung Karno in Indonesian. The challenge was to squeeze every interesting fact I had into 2000 words without making it sound too dry and academic for a glossy expatriate magazine. Now, having completed my tribute to Sukarno and Bandung, I can finally put these irrational obsessions of mine to rest--at least for a while.

I think I am guilty of not posting any of my pictures on my blog. Well, I'll try to put this feature length article together with my unpublished pictures on my website someday--another item on my long list of to-dos. And not forgeting the other one that was published last year: "Pramoedya's Jakarta"--about Jakarta in the 1950, as seen through Pramoedya Ananta Toer's collection of short stories, "Tales from Djakarta".

Now that I'm spending most of my time in KL, I don't think I can find the inspiration nor the inclination to write more feature-length articles. For my Sukarno/Bandung article, I checked into the historical Grand Hotel Preanger in Bandung (which Sukarno himself had a hand in designing during his early days as an architect) for 3 nights to complete my research and to finish up my writing.

No matter what I told people, no one believed that I spent the three days and nights visiting prisons and graves all over romantic Bandung--also known as the Paris of Java. People thought that I took leave to snuggle up with some nubile Sundanese damsel there. Sigh, maybe I have my priorities all wrong...

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Business as Usual

Business as Usual

Yesterday's downpour and the resulting traffic-jam were actually worse than I had thought. In fact it was one of the worst--it brought back memories of the massive flooding that I experienced here in Jakarta beginning of 2002. I didn't realise how lucky I was to be able to reach home relatively easily until I read the newspaper reports this morning.

Today everyone was exchanging tales about how they got stuck in the jam for three to six hours. Even at midnight, the jam did not subside. Many who got trapped in town, decided to spend the night in a hotel. The newly launched Busway transport buses, with their exclusive lanes, were also caught in a standstill at Harmoni because the traffic lights were not working.

During the 2002 flood, Jalan Sudirman became a river water. The kids from the city slums had a good time, turning the business district into their watery playground. I was caught in Kota after having dinner with a colleague. Water was rising everywhere. The filth from the canals spilled onto the roads. Luckily my friend's mighty Katana was able to overcome the surging waters and with great difficulty we managed to inch our way back to my hotel. He had to bunk in with me for the night when reports began to filter in that a greater portion of the Jakarta population were stranded in their cars on roads and highways going out of the city. For one night, my room over-looking Jalan Wahid Hasyim, had a river view.

Again we were lucky; imagine the thousands of people who were living in the squatter areas alongside the filthy canals and rivers. Their belongings were swept away, their makeshift homes damaged.

Life in Jakarta is never dull: if there are no demos, riots or bombs, Nature provides the necessary excitement.

And always, with remarkable resilience, you'll see the people going about in their business again after such calamities. The press will make some noise accusing the authorities for not doing anything to alleviate floods or to improve the traffic situation, but no one sincerely believes that anything substantial will be done.

People in Jakarta generally accept their fate; they take suffering in the chin and carry on with their lives. Probably surrender is a better word. They have more important things to worry about--bodies to clothe and mouths to feed back home. And business goes on as usual, while the next calamity awaits.

Flotsam of the Streets

Flotsam of the Streets

An evening of heavy downpour created havoc with the Jakarta traffic. With some difficulty I managed to get a taxi back to my hotel in Tanah Abang. I was lucky that I was heading north from the business district, those going south towards places like Pondok Indah, Kemang and Bintaro--the PJs and Bangsars of Jakarta--are probably still trapped on the road.

Here in the comfort of my room, I could see from my window, red points of lights, like flotsam in a river of darkness, oozing their way slowly through the mazy streets of Jakarta. It must be very bad, for I could hear horns blaring incessantly. One of my Indonesian friends who have been to KL before joked that taxi drivers there should undergo training in Jakarta first--to learn patience and to see what a real traffic jam is like.

The first thing I noticed when I first arrived in Jakarta is that, you can never find a spot in the city that is devoid of people. There are everywhere, in every nook and corner, and at any time of the day--peddlers, beggars, ojeks, musicians, vagrants--there are always there in the streets. Some just loiter around doing nothing--that good old-fashioned practice called nongkrong.

It is common here for middleclass families here to hire chauffeurs to drive them around. Every building basement here has a congregation place, furnished with benches and sometimes equipped with a TV, for drivers to laze around while waiting for their employers. There too you will find cigarette and food vendors, serving the needs of these drivers. Even down in a dingy basement, there's a thriving community!

I read somewhere in the papers that the city authorities routinely pick up dead bodies from the streets, like garbage. I am not surprised, so many of these people spend their whole lives in the streets. And in the end, they die there too, to be swept away, like the debris and flotsam that gets flushed down the canals everytime it pours.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

The City of Victory

The City of Victory

Feels like I've never left this place: suddenly I'm blogging from my favourite cybercafe in Jakarta.

Started with a phonecall from my ex-employer last Friday to seek my help for an on-going project. A couple of e-mails over the weekends, a few clicks of the mouse to redeem my free ticket from Krisflyer, a few more clicks to book my hotel room and suddenly I'm here in the City of Victory--Jaya-karta.

What is the first thing that hits you when you step into the terminal of the Sukarno-Hatta airport? The faint smell of kretek, which you will cease to notice after 10 seconds. To me that's the smell of Indonesia. And to paraphrase Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, "I love the smell of kretek in the morning air...smells like...victory"

Immigration didn't give me much trouble, even though the guy did ask to see my return ticket. His fear is justified: I have to admit: I did toy with the idea of staying here indefinitely...

Once you step out from immigration and customs, so many things vie for your attention: placards, limousine counters, and the throng of people who mill around the exit. One is greeted by the usual taxi touts; and if you are a male traveller, pimps will be shoving business cards at you (and they always speak to you in Mandarin).

The trick is not to look everywhere--stare at your feet and walk briskly to the Silverbird taxi stand outside, like a local. A Silverbird cab and a friendly Javanese driver is the perfect reception for me.

And what sights to behold as one is driven into the city: modern elevated freeways, gleaming glass towers standing high and aloof; and beneath: the ugly infection of ramshackle huts everywhere and murky canals that cut like open wounds across the metropolis. It feels as if there's a mass of vanquished feeding off the leftovers of a few victors. And everytime I see these sights, I remember why I find this city so fascinating and I marvel at the optimism of its name.

Monday, April 19, 2004

First Love and the Religious Experience

First Love and the Religious Experience

Religious awakening, like first love, can be an overwhelming experience. It seizes a person and changes his whole perspective in life. In the throes of its ecstasy, one is so sure that what one feels inside is right.

It is as if, at a certain point in the evolution of the mind and soul, it latches on to a stable state--one in which everything suddenly seems to fall in place; one that illuminates and dispels the darkest doubts in our minds. It is a heightened state of consciousness unlike what one has ever felt before.

Depending on the readiness of the person, this transformational experience could either change a person for the better or veer him completely off-course. A teenager falling in love for the first time thinks that nothing else in the world is more beautiful than what he or she is experiencing. The pair of teenage lovebirds would think that adults simply do not understand what they are going through. With the love that they have for each other, they feel that they will be able to conquer and overcome every obstacle that comes their way.

How beautiful is first love! How intoxicating is the flowering of our first spiritual impulses! Our entire world bursts into dazzling splendour. The lotus blooms. Stars explode. Eyes well with ecstatic tears.

What we think is the childish love between a boy and a girl in the bloom of their youth, is but an inferior glimpse of what the religious experience is ultimately like. The love between two individuals is often selfish; but love, in all its forms, when it does blossom, is naturally a good thing for it is basically a sign that the soul is seeking to embrace something other than itself. The soul is ever-growing. When it realises that it has some worthy purpose beyond its limiting mortal frame, it lunges furiously at it, like a plant seeking light.

We smile at the innocence of teenage love because we could see how small their vision of the world is. Later in life, their souls would progress to embrace larger causes--it could be the environment, it could be human rights, or it could be the desire to serve the community. These are all noble causes, worthy of our pursuits. The soul revels in its tendency to embrace an ever-expanding vision of the world. As we slowly diminish the selfish concerns of our mundane souls, the glory of God begins to fill us. This can be a very intoxicating experience.

But little do we realise sometimes that this intoxication could also be an impediment to our progress. We are so enamoured with these incidental glimpses of God that we forget that the soul still has a long journey to go. Sometimes we even think that the ecstatic vision that happens to consume us is all that matters. We are so sure that the girl we love is the most beautiful girl in the world. Why should we or other people for the matter, even consider other girls?

Once upon a time, we thought the Universe revolves around our Earth. Then we realised that the Earth is but an average-sized planet, rather unremarkable, among many other planets that revolves around the Sun.

Then we found out that our Sun is but one of millions of stars which perambulate within a cosmic carousel of stars called the Milky Way galaxy. And then even the Milky Way is nothing special--there are billions of galaxies like that--each with its own population of stars, of planets, and probably of souls, lonely in their enormous cosmic isolation, souls that cling desperately to one another, or to their tiny visions of the world, and falling head-over-heels in love, for the very first time.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Cinta IT

Cinta IT

Don't we all feel miserable on a Sunday evening? The weekend has virtually ended and you brace yourself for the drudgery of another long week at work. Usually we dive into a burst of urgency Monday morning in the office--replying e-mails we have put off for ages, making phonecalls and setting up long-postponed meetings.

Since I don't work for anyone anymore these days, I don't experience that Sunday evening anxiety so much. Well, I don't know if that's good or bad. A bit of pressure is necessary sometimes to create a sense of urgency. Hopefully an empty rice-bowl is pressure enough for me to work harder.

I am constantly reevaluating my level of productivity. I need to eliminate time-wasters. Surfing can easily suck up too much of my time--it could be worse than watching TV. But that is not my major challenge; the real challenge comes from maintaining a steady interest in my "official" line of work, which is IT.

Too often I fall into spells of obsession with specific areas of interest that are totally unrelated to IT--such as the life of Sukarno, or the history of railways in Indonesia, or maybe even Sundanese poetry. These distractions yank me off from my main track and threaten the quality of my "real" work. Sometimes I feel a bit like the protaganist in Edgar Allan Poe's short story, Berenice (one of my favourites)--who suffers from fits of monomania.

To prevent any loss of concentration, especially when I'm in the middle of an important project, I often take the drastic measure of not reading anything that could veer me off-track. It is a tough thing to do--a bit like abstaining from sex. But it has to be done.

I have an important week coming up, starting with a meeting Monday morning. Think IT. Think IT. Think IT. Maybe I should start humming that "Cinta IT" propaganda song by Siti Nurhaliza which they used to play over and over again on RTM...