Thursday, July 30, 2009

Meatstick Observations

I got sucked into watching The Wire last night. Be careful with that show, it will take over your life. After spending way too many consecutive hours on the couch, I realized that it was dinner time. Sate (bbq chicken skewers with peanut sauce) seemed pretty appealing to my lazy state and the sate man rolls by my door pretty much every night. After watching yet another episode of The Wire, I conceded that the sate guy was not coming. I could no longer avoid the grumble in my tummy, so I hopped on my bike and drove to the closest non-mobile sate spot. The best part about the sate cart coming to your house is that you don't have to sit and wait for it to finish being cooked. You can just go sit back on your couch and wait for the guy to yell that he has finished barbecuing your dinner in front of your house (love this country!).

So there I was patiently waiting on a plastic stool for my meat sticks. I lit a cigarette and had nothing better to do than look around. My boredom soon turned to amazement. This spot was complete sensory overload. I didn't care how long it was going to take to cook my meats, there was too much to see. In no particular order, here are some of my stool observations.

1) No less than 3 lady boys (transvestites, men who dress like women or whatever you call them) came into the sate tent. You can easily spot lady boys as they wear very revealing clothes. No self respecting Indonesian woman would ever dress that way in public. As usual, they were done up and wearing their shortest skirts. Each one had a speaker fixed on their chest (maybe to hide the absence of cleavage) playing very loud Indonesian dance music. They approached the tables one by one and had the very conservative looking family sitting there give them money. What a great concept. Somebody pays you money to go away.

2) At some point, I lost count of the number of motorbikes I saw with 4 or more people on them. The norm was dad driving with a kid in front of him resting his head on the handlebars. Mom is on the very back with her legs dangling and the younger child sandwiched between mom and dad. It also seems that the more people on a bike, the less likely they are to be wearing helmets. The main reason for wearing helmets in this country is to avoid trouble with the police, not to protect your skull from fracturing. As if that could happen driving a motorbike on the streets of Jakarta.

3) At different times, 5 people walked out of a warung next to the sate shop with a piece of watermelon in a plastic bag (this is dessert). As soon as they got outside, they pulled the plastic bag off and threw it on the ground. This upset me a little until I noticed that there were dozens of plastic bags and lots of other random garbage right in front of me. The logic is that the street is already dirty so what difference is more garbage going to make. A much better alternative is to throw all of those unnecessary plastic bags into the garbage and burn them.

4) A very important looking man came to the sate stand and made an order to be delivered. When ordering, he grabbed the man running the stand by the arm in a domineering kind of way and whispered instructions into his ear. The sate guy looked kind of nervous and agreed to whatever it was that the man said. At this point, paranoia set in and I thought they were on to me for sure. A few seconds later, I realized that I hadn't done anything and that watching The Wire was making me paranoid. I wonder if that man actually paid for his sate in the end.

5) I saw 7 or so people crossing the road to the busway entrance. None of them looked before crossing the street. I guess that they were absent the day they taught that in school. There is hope for the future generation though. I saw a mother (bag of sate in hand) making her young daughter look both ways a couple of times before crossing the street.

Finally, my sate was finished and I set off on my way home. Upon arriving, I decided that I had had enough excitement for one day and was going to lay off The Wire for the rest of the night. One hour after finishing the sate (which was excellent) I watched 3 episodes of The Wire and went to bed way too late.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Cat Math (1+1=6)

Despite the rampant pollution and lack of green space in Jakarta, there seems to be a lot of wildlife that lives in this city. That is if you can consider cats and dogs wildlife. Other animals one may encounter on a daily basis include rats (very very big ones), cockroaches, tiny lizards (known as cicak), musang (a possum like animal), birds and toads. There is also a plethora of insects including butterflies, flies, dragonflies, ants and mosquitoes. It often amazes me how so many critters can manage not to just live but to thrive in this smog filled concrete jungle.

There seems to be an unbreakable code as far as co-existing with animals is concerned. The one I find the strangest is cats. Nobody under any circumstance will harm or kill cats. This topic came up at my home close to 1 year ago. When I first moved into my house, I was pleasantly surprised to find a street cat or two had been using the space in front of my bedroom window as a litter box for a very long time. So one day I sucked it up, got a shovel and picked up the 100 or more encrusted cat turds and tried my best to sanitize the spot in order to prevent further bowel movements. The extreme cleaning and cat-proofing of the gate in front of my house ensured that they would no longer defecate inches from where I lay my head. Then the cats started using the street in front of my house as a toilet. This didn't bother me much as it was an improvement compared to smelling cat urine while in bed. Then I noticed that one of the 5 or so cats who appeared to live in front of my house or on my roof was pregnant. Sure enough, there were 4 kittens living in my garbage box a few weeks later. This was definitely cute. The idea of adopting one crossed my mind but having an indoor cat in Jakarta is next to impossible. They will inevitably get outside, forage in garbage boxes and rancid trenches only to return to nuzzle against their soon to be diseased owner. Then I started doing cat reproductive math in my head and had the realization that, at this rate, there would soon be dozens of cats living in front of or on my house. When I asked friends about this, they told me that it was very very wrong to kill or exterminate cats and that Jakartans live in harmony with them. I started to ask if somebody would take action if the dozens turned into a hundred and so on. Unsurprisingly, the answer was no. It amazed me that cats could totally take over an entire street or neighbourhood and that nobody would do anything about it (any PETA type disagreeing with me can suck it, go live in the wild for a while and see how "ethically" animals treat you and each other) even if the situation got out of control. Worst of all, the cats stand no chance against the oversize rats on the street, so they can't even act as rodent control.

It is worth pointing out that both stray dogs and cats seem to be very docile and non-threatening. If anything, they are timid. This is the polar opposite of the stray dogs and cats around where I grew up. Dogs don't get much love in this country. They are allowed to roam free as cats are but are considered to be disgusting creatures. I'm not sure if it is purely Muslim beliefs or a mix of traditional Indo and Muslim beliefs but the majority of people here are petrified of dogs. On one of my first excursions with my better half, we went to a friend's house who had a dog. Upon entering the home, my lady nearly had a panic attack at the sight of a small and very friendly dog. She spent most of the night eyeing the dog and jumping on her chair every time the dog got too close. Later she told me that she was brought up to never touch dogs because they are dirty. She also mentioned that she felt fortunate to make it through the night without the dog biting her. This story seems to be very common. A westerner who owns a dog will get some strange or frightened reactions by simply walking the dog down the street on a leash. I've even known friends who have had maids quit because they got a puppy.

My lady has come a long way since then. I have helped her to overcome her fear of dogs but she still worries that some dogs are just waiting for her to let her guard down so they can bite and (assumingly) eat her flesh. Many months after her initial dog reaction, I was at her parents' house when I noticed quite possibly the dirtiest and most foul smelling cat I've ever seen roaming around in their house minutes after scavenging garbage in the street. When I asked if it was worse to have a clean dog or a rank alley cat in one's house, they begged me to promise never to bring a dog anywhere near their house. I agreed as long as they promised to clean any spot where the cat touched in their house.

Fast forward to last night. There are now at least 12 cats that I can easily identify on my street, not to mention numerous kittens. Since the first time I saw kittens in my garbage box, there have been 3 other litters that I've known of. The fourth came late last night. I was awoken by cat howling which lasted for an hour or so and then suddenly stopped. Later I could hear the kittens moaning but was unable to visually locate them the next morning. With my exceptionally good cat reproductive math skills, I predict that there will be approximately 30 cats living in front of or on top of my house by the end of the year. At least the new breed have the decency not to poop in front of my bedroom. Time to get a dog I think.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Technical Difficulties

My cable remote control stopped working the other day. Getting up to change the channel manually wore off after about 10 minutes. After an attempt to change the batteries proved not to fix the problem, I decided to call the 24 hour call center. Dealing with people at call centers or help desks or whatever you call them can be very frustrating in this country. It was frustrating back in my home and native land but it is exponentially more difficult to get your problem fixed here. The worst part is that you cannot be upset with or fault the voice on the phone because they truly have no idea what is going on. I suspect that this is usually due to lack of training.

The first problem is the language barrier. I consider myself able to carry a conversation in Bahasa but people on phones tend to speak extremely fast. My requests they bicara pelan-pelan (speak slowly) usually either fall on deaf ears or prompt the operator to switch to English with a very limited vocabulary. This can have strange consequences as a bilingual conversation usually breaks out. I will ask a question in English and when they sputter to reply in English, I will re-phrase the question in Bahasa. Sometimes this works, other times it causes more confusion as they can't decipher whether they can't understand what I'm saying in English or if I am actually speaking Bahasa with a western accent. This is my fault as I am in Indonesia and must work to improve my bahasa. I have called help lines before which say "press 2 for English". Quite a few times, the operator has simply hung up on me when I ask if they can speak English as they most likely got stage fright or simply can't speak English.

On this particular day, the help desk was pretty helpful and told me that a technician would be sent to my house. Later that evening, the technician called to inform me that he would be coming after lunch the next day. The following day being Saturday, I was able to sit around and wait for him to show up. He called me again at 9 am to confirm that he would be around after lunch. He called again around 10:30 am to make sure he had the right address. At 4 pm, I called the technician to see if he was coming any time soon. He didn't answer his phone which made me wonder if perhaps he was in the middle of eating his lunch when I called. Once again, I called the help desk to ask whether the technician would be coming today or not. I did not want this question to be answered but rather for the help desk to remind the technician to come to my house. There is sometimes a serious lack of communication or an obliviousness as to what the left and right hand are doing in companies such as these. 10 minutes later, a different technician called and asked for directions to my house. 5 minutes later, he was at my house with another assistant technician and very quickly sorted out that the problem was the decoder box. He replaced the box and told us to make sure to unplug the decoder box every time there was a power failure. This is not really possible as power failures are a regular occurrence and often happen when nobody is home. Despite this, I agreed to do what he said.

With my remote working again, I was looking forward to some channel surfing. It went great for about 10 minutes at which time a blue screen appeared and the decoder box started to attempt to download new software. The download progress stayed at 0% until 5 minutes later, programming resumed. 15 minutes later, it again tried to download for 5 minutes and then resumed to 15 minutes of TV watching and then continued to repeat this cycle. I called the cable company and they advised me to disconnect and re-connect the wire into the converter box. After this failed, I once again called them and a different operator told me to do the same. When I explained that I had already called and tried that, she told me that I may need a new converter box. I told her that it was a new converter box delivered earlier that day. Then she told me to try disconnecting the wire. I told her again that I had already done that and then she hung up on me. Once again, I called and had a similar kind of dialogue. This time, I hung up. Finally, I called one more time and told them that my cable wasn't working and I didn't know what was wrong. They promised me that a technician would come the next day.

A few hours later, I was on my way out of my house when 2 guys on a motorbike asked me if I knew where a certain address was. I was surprised to hear them say my address and told them that this was the place. They informed me that they were from the cable company and were there to fix my problem. It must be my lucky day, they are a day early and managed to arrive before I left. I explained what had happened and they decided that I needed a new decoder box. Once installed they started putting their shoes back on and getting ready to leave. I asked them to stay for 10 minutes or so in case we had the same problem again. They assured me that this was a NEW box and that I wouldn't have the same problem again. I pleaded and even offered them coffee and snacks in a sad attempt to get them to stay (they must have thought I was lonely or something). They told me that they were very busy and had to go. They also pointed out that the cable was working just fine. There is a big problem with people using "it's OK now" as an excuse not to fix things properly. Sure enough, the technician's motorbike was just out of earshot when once again, the decoder box started to attempt to download software. I immediately called the cable company and demanded that they return since they still must have been close. The operator informed me that there were no available technicians until 2 days later and that I should attempt disconnecting the wire from the back of the box.

This morning, I had the Mrs. call the cable company and tell them that we are not going to pay our bill if they don't come to fix this problem. After asking if we had tried to unplug the cable from the converter box, they agreed that they will come later today some time after lunch. I gave specific instructions that they are not allowed to leave until 2o minutes of uninterrupted cable TV time has passed, even if that means locking them in and forcing tea and snacks down their throats. I'm hoping that this problem will sort itself out but I won't be the least bit surprised if takes another week to get this problem sorted out. I also fully expect to be forced to dispute the charges on my next cable bill that may or may not include payment for 3 converter boxes. All of this commotion is making me think that maybe I should find something better to do with my time than watch TV. Maybe I'll turn my television set into an aquarium. Hopefully, this will reduce the number of technical difficulties in my life.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

I am deeply saddened by the bombings in Jakarta this week and offer my condolences to anybody who was killed or injured. There's nothing much to say about this that hasn't already been said so I'll just leave you with a quote from a man named Michael Franti

"We can bomb the world to pieces but we can't bomb it into peace."

Friday, July 17, 2009

Yabba Dabba Doo

I saw a fire engine on the street for the first time yesterday. Didn't know if they existed in Indonesia. I thought maybe this town was like Bedrock from the Flintstones since most stable structures are comprised mostly of cement. The sad part of this is that the structures that are made of wood are in the kampungs (slums) and a fire truck wouldn't be able to access these areas due to narrow streets. The fire engine appeared to be back to it's station, wherever that may be. I couldn't help but wonder how this massive vehicle would weave it's way through traffic with it's sirens blaring and if people would even consider yielding. I was once stuck behind an ambulance in a traffic jam. All lanes were clogged and we were moving at a snails pace while the ambulance had it's sirens blaring. After moving less than 1 kilometer in 20 minutes, the ambulance turned it's sirens off. As I'm writing this, it has occurred to me that I should write 'buy a fire extinguisher' on my list of things to do this weekend.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Are You Trying to Cool Down All of Jakarta?

OK I admit that I am a little set in my ways but I am not an OCD person, that's for sure (1234 1234 1234). That being said, I have certain (let's call them) peeves. One of my biggest ones is closing doors. Keeping doors closed in Jakarta is not the norm for many. A lot of people don't even have doors or windows for that matter. Me, I like my doors closed for one of 2 reasons. The first one is that mosquitoes will enter. The second is that opening doors lets air conditioned air escape. I am definitely my Father's son as I can still hear him saying "Are you trying to heat the front yard?" when I'd leave doors open as a child. Well Dad, at least we had screen doors and windows. Screens appear to be a luxury in this country.

The correlation between having a door open (especially at night) and mosquitoes coming into one's house seems pretty straightforward to me. A hundred million or so people on this island don't seem to agree with me on that one. I've lost count of how many times I've closed the front door behind someone entering or exiting my house. When I've tried to explain that mosquitoes live outside and therefore leaving the door open entices mosquitoes to enter the house, I've met many a blank stare. Quite a few of the maids that have worked for me have been given the whole speech about not opening the doors and windows in my bedroom when they clean. They've often replied that the windows must be opened every day in order to allow "angin" (wind) into the bedroom. I've responded that I appreciate them cleaning my room but I'd prefer they not open the windows since I can't stand having mosquitoes in my bedroom when I'm trying to sleep at night. They usually nod and continue opening doors and windows every day since they figure that I don't know what I'm talking about. I'm not sure if you've ever had the pleasure of experiencing a mosquito attack in your bed but it is extremely unpleasant. It usually involves them flying so close to your ears that the buzzzzzzz pulls you out of a dead sleep. If it isn't that, it is sometimes as little as 1 mosquito jumping on your arm or leg biting your repeatedly. For me, this is about as enjoyable as eating glass. I'm sure that Indonesians hate it as much as me but many just don't seem to make the connection between open doors and mosquitoes. The last maid I had insisted on having the doors open all day long, especially while she cooked. Despite my pleading, she insisted that the doors must be open because the house needed to be aired out to prevent it from being "bau" (smelly) inside. She didn't seem to be worried about the extreme heat in the kitchen. Finally, I decided that I would give her good reason to close the doors. I showed her the 12 flies that I had killed the night before (with my electronic mosquito racquet, one of my favourite toys) and explained that these flies likely came from the pile of cat crap in front of the house or an unseen dead rat's carcass. Despite my pointing out how extremely unsanitary it was having flies in the house, (not to mention the annoyance of mosquitoes) she patronizingly told me that she sanitized the house every day and that my house would be dirty and smelly if she didn't open the doors. Luckily, her food was fantastic. I guess it's hard to break old habits, especially if one has lived their whole life in a dwelling with open doors and dozens of mosquitoes and flies inside at all times.

The whole air conditioning thing is a different story. Most A/C's in this country are the wall unit kinds. To the best of my knowledge, central A/C for homes doesn't exist in this corner of the world. These wall units always come with a remote control. The mastering of these remotes is a difficult task for some. I've tried in vein many times to clarify what the word "AUTO" means as far as climate control. These A/C units seem to be pretty good at maintaining a certain temperature. You simply choose a temperature (I like around 24 C) and put the fan on "AUTO". This means that when the room gets cool, the A/C reduces it's power an when it warms up, it cools a bit more. Many people (including the vast majority in my workplace) prefer to set the A/C at 16 C and the fan on full power. This inevitably creates an extremely cold room as the A/C unit will just keep pushing out more and more cold air without end. When it gets too cold, they will then turn the A/C off or start pushing random buttons without bothering to ask the eternal question:"What does this button do?". When it gets really hot 20 minutes later, they will turn the A/C back on at full power while fanning themselves with a paper and so on and so forth. I've given up any attempt to explain this further and instead prefer to laugh at people scrambling to find the A/C remote every 15 minutes.

What I persist with is trying to convince people to leave doors closed when the A/C is running. My workplace is semi-outdoor. This means that there are air conditioned rooms with open air hallways. Therefore, leaving doors open is like trying to cool down Jakarta. My dad would have a heart attack if he came here. I'm not talking about doors being left open for minutes but hours. When attempting to get people to close doors, my requests are usually understood and acknowledged. When they are not, I ask people if they open windows in cars while having the A/C running. The usual reply is "of course not!". This is when I point out that leaving a door open is the same concept only in a larger space. My main reason for keeping A/C air inside is not for the power bill (I'm not paying it at work) but instead an environmental one. It is also of note to point out that Jakarta is prone to the occasional afternoon blackout due to excessive power consumption. Does this encourage people to limit their power use? Of course not. The majority of my co-workers agree that it is a good idea to close doors of rooms with A/C running and try their best to remember to do so. Their best isn't very good. I'd say the average person remembers to close the door 40% of the time. When they see me closing the door for them, they apologize and promise to try harder to remember. Their intentions are sincere, especially as some are environmentally conscious but I do feel as if I am fighting a losing battle. I've already given up on the notions of recycling or composting in Jakarta so I don't want to be an energy waster as well. Maybe running air conditioners with doors and windows open could help reverse the effects of global warming, NOT.

The oddest part of all this in my mind is that I constantly have a fleece available at work for the instances where a room is too cold to deal with. I hope the irony of wearing a fleece in a tropical metropolis is not lost on you. What is even stranger is that the average Jakarta born Indonesian believes that Bandung is very cold at night when temperatures can fall to a bone chilling 20 C. I don't and never will understand how these same people can manage to sit in an air conditioned room who's temperature is at 14 C and dropping while wearing a short sleeved shirt and sandals, all the while looking content. Meanwhile, I'm shivering in the corner wishing that I'd brought my scarf and mittens to work.