Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Time for Bed

Running the simplest errand can be painful and time consuming in this town. I usually expect things to go wrong or not to go as planned. The beauty of this is that when things do occasionally get accomplished promptly, I am very pleasantly surprised. Today, I decided that I was going to get my new watch fixed. The watch was a way overpriced gift from an associate at a staff function. I'm not much of a watch person but it was a Swiss Army watch and I thought hey, they make good knives so the watch may be alright. Upon trying it on, it was obvious that it was sized for a man with a much larger and hairier forearm than mine. Recently, I had seen a Swiss Army booth in Pasa Raya so I decided to go and see what would happen. Astonishingly, the guy working at the booth was able to re-size the watch by removing a few links in approximately 3 minutes. When I asked how much it would cost (before he started so I wouldn't be surprised) he said "terselah" (up to you) which meant it was free of charge but I could tip him for his services. Tip him I did as he made my day. There I was with my new (and very expensive as it turns out) re-sized watch on my arm with lots of time to spare since I had planned on this errand taking up most of my afternoon. We had some nice lunch in the basement and enjoyed some people watching. Pasa Raya is the best place in Jakarta to see what I like to call mismatches. After finishing lunch, we went to get my bike which I had cleverly parked on Jl. Paletehan. If you've ever parked in the Pasa Raya bike parking lot, you'd understand why I parked where I did. If you think that I parked there for any other reason then shame on you!

As I got to the end of the street, there was a parked van blocking my view of traffic. I slowly rolled up to the van and to my surprise (not really) a 40 something year old man walked right out in front of me without looking. I honked to inform him that I was there and he looked up and started laughing hysterically at the fact that he hadn't looked before crossing the street and almost got hit by a vehicle. I did what I usually do in this instance (yes, it happens a lot, more to come about that in a future posting) and pointed my fingers at my eyes in a sign gesture to watch where you are going. As I'm writing this now, it seems kind of funny but at the time it was more infuriating than funny. I say that because I don't think I'd be laughing if I was responsible for injuring somebody with my motorbike. I continued on down the road and decided that I would use my bonus free time to go check out a mattress sale that I had seen on the way to the watch shrinkening. I know, I'm so cool.

I have been fantasizing about buying a new mattress for a few months now. Other expenses have put it on the back burner. My old mattress was fantastic for about 3 years and then it got horribly saggy and uncomfortable almost overnight. I decided that I'd learn from my past mattress experience and spend a lot on a new mattress. After all, you spend one third of your life in bed doing 2 of the things that I enjoy doing the most; sleeping and reading. Got ya, you thought I was going to say watching TV, didn't ya?

As I pulled into the mattress shop, the parking guy asked me and the Mrs. where we were going. I found this to be hilarious since the parking lot was solely for the mattress store. He didn't get the ironic humor when I explained while laughing that I wanted to maybe buy a bed and that this was why I wanted to park in the bed store parking lot. He directed me to the tiny bike area in the back and we proceeded to enter the store. I laughed even harder when I saw a sign that there was also a fertility clinic in the upstairs of the building. We entered and saw that there were only 2 girls working there. They were both preoccupied with sucking up to a "rich" lady at the front counter so we got to go and have a look around. This is the opposite of most retail stores in Indonesia, there are usually more people working in a store than people shopping. We looked around, sat on a few mattresses and looked at a few catalogues which didn't have bed statistics as I expected but instead was full of fabric samples for your mattress. I found this to be odd since the only time I've ever looked at the fabric on my mattress is when I was changing the sheets. One of the sales girls stuck her head around the corner and informed us that she'd be be with us in a moment. I didn't care since a mattress shop is probably the best place in the world to have "sit" and wait for service.

Eventually, she came over to talk to us and was very friendly. She first asked if we wanted a firm or medium mattress. Then she asked which brands interested us and offered to show us some fabric catalogues. It's a bed, not a couch! The fabric on the mattress could have My Little Pony on it for all I care as long as it is super comfortable and suitable for watching hours and hours of TV. I then politely told her that I would like to know the prices of mattresses. She asked if it was mattress only or mattress plus 12 accessories. I said mattress aja since I didn't feel like getting into a discussion about what material I'd like my pillows to be stuffed with before I'd actually picked out a mattress. I picked one random mattress and she went to get her price listing book. All I really wanted was to see that book for myself but I knew that wasn't going to happen. She said that the mattress I'd chosen was around 18 million (ouch). I then asked about another one and I was given another astonishing quote. I asked to make sure that it was the price for just the mattress and not the whole shebang and it was indeed just the mattress. I then had the Mrs. ask about which beds were on sale as the sign outside that had originally intrigued me stated. She told us that all Serta (I think) brands were 40% off, King Koils were 50% off and some Italian brand were 50% off. OK, I thought, now we are talking. I asked how much this Italian mattress was. She told me 22 million. I asked if that was after the 50% discount and she informed me that it was. I then asked how much a certain Serta mattress was after the 40% discount and she pulled out her calculator and pricing list. I tried to get a look at the pricing list in her hand as I was getting annoyed at this point. She did her best to hide the list and informed me that this Serta mattress (no box spring or frame or duvet or pillow or stuffed sheep or guling) was reduced to 27 million after the 40% discount. I laughed at her and told her that it would be cheaper to buy one of these mattresses in the US or Italy and have them shipped here since her prices were so high. She gave me her best fake smile and informed me that their beds cost the same as a store in a Western country. Just to be sure, I confirmed that the Serta mattress in front of me would be roughly 40 million were there not a 40% discount. She assured me that this was true while I once again tried in vain to get a peek at her pricing list. Then, she informed me that they did have some beds that were cheaper and they offered free delivery for all mattresses. I looked at her and said this is garbage (I said a bad word in Indonesian but I'm trying not to curse while writing, OK) and informed her that there was no chance that I'd ever be buying a bed from this store. She assured me that their prices are very competitive and I assured her that I didn't want to listen to her for one more second and was leaving. A friend of mine has a real nice mattress comparable to the one that I was looking at and I'm pretty sure he paid around 5 million for his.

We walked out and I sarcastically informed the parking guy that I wanted to go home. As we were walking to the bike compound, the Mrs. informed me that my behaviour was unacceptable and that she didn't want to shop with me if I was going to act like that. I informed her that there was no way that I was going to let someone disrespect me like that and then smile and thank them for treating me like a fool. I know how I should act in that situation and I often do act accordingly but there was no chance that was going to happen today. Then, I proceeded to tell the Mrs. that the girl inside was lucky that I didn't say what I was really thinking and that I told her off in the most polite way possible. The disapproving look on her face told me that it is not possible to politely tell someone off.

So now here I am again on my lumpy old mattress playing on the computer since the TV has been temporarily disconnected. It has occurred to me that these blogs are a bit arrogant since there are millions of people in this country who can barely afford to buy a foam mat to sleep on and some who don't even have a roof over their heads. I recently explained this to a friend by using the analogy that this blog is a bit like complaining that my gold watch hurts my arm or that my diamond shoes are giving me blisters. That being said, my new re-sized Swiss Army watch is hurting my arm because it's so heavy but I'm not complaining.
Sleep well y'all

The Early Bird Gets The Ice Cream

Living with constant noise is something one must accept if they wish to live in a large Asian city. The sounds that penetrate and irritate the eardrum are wide and varied. They range from loud motorbikes with the exhaust removed to make them sound cool to street vendors promoting their different products. I like to live by the "When in Rome" model so I try my hardest to accept the noise as others do. That being said, I always have a pair of earplugs within reach.

The hardest thing to accept about the noises in Jakarta is when they start. There is actually a period of dead silence in Jakarta which lasts from around 2-4 a.m. There have been numerous occasions when I've been staggering home in this time frame and have been somewhat frightened by how eerily quiet the streets can be. It feels a little like being in the 'calm before the storm' part of a horror movie. This silence comes to an abrupt halt with the morning prayer call at approximately 4 am. At this moment, the chants begin to blare out of your local mosque's loudspeakers. It is literally a wake up call and the larger the mosque, the louder the call. If you are fortunate enough not to live near a mosque, this will not wake you up. If you do live near a mosque like I do, you just have to simply wait it out. I must admit that I find the chanting somewhat soothing and it is a rather friendly wake up call compared to an alarm clock or a rooster. Most mornings, I manage to sleep through it or to fall back asleep seconds after it finishes. For many, this is the start of their day, there is no going back to sleep as there is breakfast to prepare and work to be done. It is much easier to get work done in the early morning hours before it gets too hot. When I first came to Jakarta, I thought that nobody ever did any work and just sat around all day. I later realized that they often had finished their day's work before I had woken up.

After pre-dawn showering and praying, all hell breaks loose. For some reason, this seems to be the ideal time for street cats to fight or fornicate (they seem to make the same noises for both) on my roof. At around 5:00 - 5:30 a.m. the maid from the house across the road begins to sweep their portion of street. To do this, she uses what is known as a lidi which is basically a little broom made of straw like strands that are tied together. They make a strange whispy woosh sound which I personally find very irritating. This without a doubt wakes me up every morning and not in a good way. The sensation is similar to that of fingernails on a chalkboard. The most annoying part of this is that I usually get up at 5:45 a.m., so it ruins that beautiful sleep period just before waking up (this is when you usually have those epic dreams which seem to last for days but are only 10 minutes long in reality). Aside from her cleaning the road, there is complete silence on my street (my street is rare for Jakarta, most are loud by now). After weeks of waking up angrily, I finally decided to confront this situation and politely asked the maid if she could possibly clean the street later (as in 7:30 a.m.) since I was still sleeping. She seemed very confused by this request, stopped sweeping and went inside. The next day, I was again awoken by the woosh and again I asked her to stop. This time, she smugly replied "Tapi udah pagi, mister" (but it's already morning, mister). I tried my best to explain to her that it was still dark outside therefore it wasn't really morning yet. I also pointed out that all the other maids on the street sweep the road in front of their houses later in the morning. She didn't get my point at all but now she starts wooshing at around 6:15 every day. I didn't bother trying to explain to her that I don't get up at 4 a.m. nor did I try to make her understand that I wake up at a time which some westerners would consider shockingly early. The part that I don't understand is why it is so necessary to clean the patch of road in front of a house before sunrise. This same maid thinks I am a bule gila (crazy foreigner) since I've also asked her to stop talking so damn loud on her phone in front of my house/bedroom window at 6 a.m. on a Saturday. I've been told since by Indo friends that the way I dealt with this situation was very bold and rude. The polite thing would be to just deal with it. Luckily, I am not THAT polite and this makes life much easier on my co-workers and friends as a grumpy awakening takes me a few hours to shake and is detrimental to all

Around 7a.m., many of the street vendors start making their rounds. Some are on foot pulling a portable cart with a wheel and 2 legs known as a gerobak while others are on motor or push bikes. Every vendor has a distinct song or noise to indicate what they are selling. They basically sell anything you can think of. The bread guys are usually the first on the scene and you hear their familiar ROTI ROTI jingle more times than you care to that early in the morning. After that, it's usually the ice cream man. Every person who has spent any significant time in Indonesia knows the ice cream song (do do do....do do do....) and can hum the song note for note. I have great empathy for the ice cream vendor since he has to listen to that song every day for countless hours on end. I get a little restless after hearing it 3 or 4 times in a couple of hours. The thing that I can never fully comprehend about the ice cream man is that he starts making his rounds as early as 7:30a.m. I guess when you get up at 4 a.m., ice cream that early in the morning doesn't seem odd. The ice cream man is NEVER around in the late afternoon when I might actually be tempted to eat ice cream. After that, it's time for the vegetable carts who yell SAYUUUR. For the rest of the day, the vendors are pretty random.

Some of the funniest vendors I have seen and heard include the remote control man (who yells REMOTE REMOTE), the umbrella man who I mistakenly thought was selling umbrellas (turns out he was repairing them), the wicker furniture man, the tukang monyet (a man you pay in exchange for watching his monkey perform), the hamburger man, the man with a speaker on his chest playing really loud music (you pay him to go away), the broom man, the cotton candy man (who's bicycle transforms into a cotton candy spinner), and my favourite; the mobile tailor. My better half once had the tailor sewing in front of our house for what seemed like hours. Ended up setting me back Rp 20 000 to get 10 garments stitched or re-sized. Once, I made the mistake of giving the junk man some cardboard boxes for free. My neighbour later pointed out that those boxes were worth good money and he should have compensated me. I was just happy that someone came and took them away.

As the day wears on, more food vendors start appearing. My all time favourite is the Sate (BBQ chicken skewers with peanut sauce) guy who belts out a mighty SAAAAATAAAAY. Sate seems to be a strictly after dark food. Apparently, people like eating donuts at night too because the donut man seems to be one of the last guys to go home. His trademark call is the kind of horn you'd expect to hear a clown honking. As the evening wears on, the streets gradually get quieter as people who get up at 4 a.m. go to bed very early I suppose. That being said, it seems perfectly OK to honk your car horn repeatedly when you want your maid to open your gate at 1 a.m. or to stand in front of somebody' gate knocking and shouting their name for 20 minutes even if they are obviously not home.

It doesn't seem to be OK to play music at night or at least not for western people to do so. I was once at a friend's house party and there was music playing at a reasonable volume. The local security guards came by the house at around 8:30 p.m. and informed the owner that the music was disturbing an "old sick lady" next door and wanted to know if we would turn it off in order to help her get well faster. My friend (the owner) informed the security that he was not going to turn the music off. The security thanked him and left. One other evening, I had a few people at my house and the security showed up at around 10 p.m. to inform me that they were going to call the police if we didn't turn the music off. All of the Indonesians at the party got scared and left within 10 minutes. Oddly enough, the neighbours I suspect of notifying security have children who constantly cry or shriek in a painfully loud manner in front of their house almost all day every day. This is OK as they are not disturbing old sick people by making excessive noise at dawn. On that note, I once had a neighbour who listened to the same song literally 20 times in a row. Nobody complained in that instance.

There was one early morning wake up call which I don't think will ever be topped. It was the day before the end of Ramadan (Idul Fitri) and I was awoken by children shouting outside my gate. They kept banging on the gate and shouting for somebody to answer the door. Ignoring them as I had no interest in what they were selling at 6:30 a.m., I went back to sleep. I thought that they would give up soon enough but the banging and shouting persisted. After almost 20 minutes of the kids shouting, I decided it was time to go and tell these boys to get lost. As I opened the door, I managed to startle a chicken standing in my front yard. The chicken reacted by flapping it's wings and knocked down a ladder which in turn startled me. The kids saw me and (after they stopped laughing) begged me to let them in so they could retrieve their chicken. I unlocked the gate and one of the boys came in and swooped up the chicken in one quick motion. After assuring them that I had no interest in buying their chicken, the 3 young boys graciously thanked me and were on their way (presumably to sell their chicken). My nerves rattled by the falling ladder, I returned to the bedroom and attempted to go back to sleep. As my head hit the pillow, the Mrs. asked what all the commotion was. I calmly told her that a chicken had knocked over the ladder. I then closed my eyes and went back to sleep leaving the rest of the story to her imagination.

Despite the fact that these noises sometimes test my patience, it is good to know that if I am ever in need of a replacement remote control or have an early morning ice cream craving that I only need to step outside. Too bad there isn't a beer vendor.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough

Music has and always will be a prominent part of my life. This morning, I was rudely awoken earlier than I wanted to be by my hand phone. The received message was from a good friend informing me that Michael Jackson was dead. I instantly got up and turned on CNN to see how he died and what people were saying about it. This prompted me to later ask some Indonesian friends if Michael Jackson was popular here. They looked at me as if I was crazy and informed me that he was indeed larger than life in the big Durian. These people have the same childhood memories as me such as Thriller and the J5 (that's Jackson, NOT Jurassic!). Of course Michael Jackson is huge in Indo, he's (was) bigger than Monas, what a stupid question.

The odd thing about this is that it is not such a stupid question. Somebody somewhere has their finger on the musical pulse of Indonesia and Asia. This faction is in control of what people here get to hear. I've had many a conversation about music with Indonesian friends. It is amazing to find out which bands/artists they know and which ones they have never heard of. My lady companion, for example, knows the words to every Lionel Ritchie song but has never heard of Kiss, Rod Stewart or Neil Young. When I try playing some of their timeless hits, she will ask me if this is a new release and politely pretend to like it. Even friends of mine who are really into music that isn't popular have no idea who Public Enemy, The Supremes, Soundgarden, The Kinks or The Talking Heads are. I may be slightly mistaken in some of these examples but the point I'm making is that there are a lot of musicians who are household names in western countries who have never sold a single album or enjoyed a minute of air play in Indonesia. Some Indo friends of mine are conversely surprised to hear that Iwan Fall or Dewa don't sell any albums or tour abroad.

I often wonder who these musical censors are and why they decided that Bon Jovi and not Def Lepprard got to flood the Asian scene. Who had the brilliant idea that Michael Buble could become a household name in Java? Who decided that Tom Petty wasn't worthy? Above and beyond this are the iconic musicians who sell millions of t-shirts in this country. I've met many people who will wear a Beatles or Nirvana shirt who don't really know any of their songs. One time I met a girl who had a shirt on that read Mick & Keith & Charlie & Ron & Bill. When I asked her if she was a Rolling Stones fan, she had no idea what I was talking about. She told me that she saw the shirt in Blok M and thought it was cool and thanked me for informing her what the names meant on her trendy T. Some of the poorer people in Jakarta are given free clothing from a charity and will unknowingly strut around their kamupng professing their love of The Grateful Dead, N.W.A. or Panterra. There's nothing quite as amusing as a woman wearing a jilab and a Slayer t-shirt.

Luckily, I manage to listen to iTunes at home and my iPod when I'm out so I basically have control over what I listen to. This is pretty easy to do when you have a music collection rapidly approaching 20 000 songs. That being said, I know the words to way too way more Akon and Pussycat Dolls songs than I'm comfortable to admit. When a pop song becomes popular in Jakarta, it gets played constantly. I don't mean 5 times a day constantly, I mean non-stop. I was in a bar a few weeks ago with some friends and we begged the waitress to stop playing "Right Now" by Akon. By this point, she had played it 6 times in 1.5 hours. I don't even think that I could listen to "I Want You Back" more than 3 times in a row and that song could bring a potential jumper dancing off the ledge.

The rest of my day is going to be spent listening to some of my favourite Michael Jackson songs and the artists he influenced. I hope those of you who were lucky enough to be exposed to the whole scope of music during your upbringing are as thankful as I am. Try and do your best to open the ears and minds of the people who weren't so fortunate. Make a change for once in your life.

P.S. Most of my Indonesian friends didn't know who Farrah Fawcett was.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Plane & Simple

For my first blog, I'm going to go against my plan to write about daily life in Jakarta. Instead, this entry is going to be about air travel in Indonesia. The inspiration for this is (you guessed it) that I just returned from holiday in Bali & Lombok. It is a given that the worst part of any trip is the transit itself. Air travel in Indonesia always fascinates me. I often feel like I'm watching an episode of The Simpsons that I've seen so many times that I know the dialogue by heart. I say this because every time I'm in an airport/plane, the same things seem to happen without fail. Here are some examples

  1. There is a good chance that I will choose the shorter check in line only to be stuck behind the person who doesn't understand why they are not allowed to check 4 suitcases, 11 twine tied cardboard boxes stuffed with various of oleh-oleh (gifts) and 2 taped up plastic bags full of clothes on a domestic flight. These items will inevitably weigh 40-50 kg and the lone traveller will be shocked when the clerk informs them that they must pay an excess weight fee. Their shock will turn to dismay when they learn that the fee is rp 500 000 (50 bucks) as was the case in the airport yesterday. Said person will then ask if they can leave their parcels at the airport and will be informed this is not allowed. This man or woman will then decide to call a friend or relative to either come give them the money (which they don't have because ironically, they've spent it all on gifts) or to take the excess baggage away. I sometimes manage to swiftly check in while this person is on the phone calling for help.

  2. More likely than not, there will be an important looking man (probably wearing a leather jacket) who will try to cut in the check in line until I tell him to get into the back of the line. He will then reach over my shoulder whilst I'm checking in and yell at the clerk to take his ticket. Once that ordeal is finished, the same important man will force his way into the airport tax line and shove his ever so important hand full of cash inside the window and demand that the cashier take his money immediately instead of giving me my change first. This same man (batik shirt optional) will then proceed to shove my travelling companion out of the way in order to get through the security check faster. Once through the metal detector, he will move my bags out of the way so that he can promptly get his bags and enter the terminal. Once in the terminal, he will casually sit and wait one hour or more for his plane to board. I hope I grow up to be important one day. The idea of explaining this pointless rush to the important gentleman crossed my mind but I was afraid that he might have tried to put me put in prison.

  3. On the best day ever, the plane will board at the time it is meant to take off. On an average day, the plane will be an hour or 2 late. On a bad day, it will be 3 or more hours late. Yesterday's plane was 2 hours late which meant that all passengers got a complimentary McDonald's hamburger. I wonder if they upgrade to cheeseburgers after a 3 hour wait.

  4. When they call boarding for the plane, everybody will run to the gate and try to be the first one to jam their way through the door. I will casually wait until the line slows down but will absolutely definitely without question be pushed and elbowed by the person behind me in a vein attempt to board the plane faster. I'm not sure if people think that the plane is going to leave without them or if they think that they will reach their destination faster by shoving. The worst instance of this was when a man in Medan was using his baby to jab me in the back. His persistence guaranteed that the plane took off 1.5 seconds faster than it would have otherwise. Shamefully, I have given the backwards elbow to a few shovers who wouldn't stop. I managed to resist elbowing the baby in Medan though.

  5. There is an 64.6% chance that there will be somebody sitting in my seat. When I politely show them my ticket and explain that they are sitting in my seat, they will sometimes persist that I am wrong. I will then show them my boarding pass and the little sticker with the aisle numbers and letters on top of every row of seats. Then one of 2 things will happen. 1) they will bashfully get up and go to their assigned seat or 2) they will tell me that it is ok lah and that I can sit somewhere else (I'm convinced that these are people who have never been on a plane before) I will insist that I must sit in my seat because I don't feel like being kicked out of another seat when that assigned seat holder appears. They will then begrudgingly move. Yesterday, there was a young girl and a child in our seats. Their father insisted that they were their seats until I respectfully showed him our boarding passes and the sticker with the aisle and seat number above the seats. He then called the flight attendant over and explained to her that he needed 2 more seats since these girls had nowhere to sit. The attendent looked at their boarding passes and informed the kepala keluarga (family boss) that all 7 or 8 people in his family were in the wrong seats and had to move. After some banter, he picked up his half-bottle of vegetable oil (with a plastic bag and elastic under the lid for safe keeping) and directed his family towards their assigned seats.

  6. There will occasionally be someone within my vicinity who will pray with a prayer book for the entire flight. There seems to be no religious preference. I am curious to know if they pray on the motorbike ride home since riding on a bike is exponentially more dangerous than flying. Thankfully, their prayers worked and we landed safely.

  7. Upon landing, 9 out of 10 people will turn on their cell phones at the first possible opportunity to inofrm somebody that they landed 5 seconds ago and that their plan is to leave the plane, get their luggage and then leave the airport. Around the same time, the praying stops.

  8. Not one single person at the luggage claim with the exception of yours truly will seem to be the slightest bit concerned for the safety of the child playing (most likely running) on the conveyor belt.

  9. I will intentionally choose a section of the luggage carousel that is not crowded. At this point, there is a 1 in 3 chance that somebody will come and stand directly in front of me and put their luggage cart directly behind me.

  10. My taxi ride home will without a doubt be long and traffic filled. I've had rides home that were longer than the flght itself.

I have to look on the bright side. At least I don't have to take my shoes, belt and jacket off. It is not necessary to answer questions about what I plan to do with the 2 lighters in my backpack. There will be no lecture about not being allowed to have more than 150 ml of fluid in my posession. The security check people are not going to yell at me for not knowing airport security check procedures & regulations. It is not necessary to arrive at the airport 2 hours before, 45 minutes will usually do. After some reflection, flying in Indonesia isn't that bad. After all, you almost always get to see volcanoes peeking up through the clouds.