Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Running on Fumes

Yes, Ramadan is here and it inevitably takes over daily life in Jakarta among other places. Yesterday was the first work day of Ramadan. Many people adjust their working hours or daily habits accordingly in order to make their lives easier. In case you don't know, Muslim people fast during daylight hours in Ramadan. They get up at 4 a.m. to eat breakfast before the sun rises and then don't eat or drink again until after sunset. I have great respect and empathy for the people who do this (ironically, Ramadan is all about feeling empathy of those who are less fortunate) and must accept it. The thing that I have been wondering over the last couple of days is how Ramadan effects the overall health and safety of Jakartans. I don't mean health as in starving themselves (there are special rules for pregnant women and the elderly etc) but more as in mishaps.

I couldn't help but notice that many of my co-workers who were fasting weren't really on the ball by the time the afternoon rolled around. Who can blame them? I wouldn't be on the ball if I didn't have a coffee or 2 within my first couple of hours at work. This got me wondering about people who have jobs that could be hazardous or require great attention. It is like the waiver for so many prescription drugs: DO NOT OPERATE HEAVY MACHINERY. Well, if one were fasting for an entire day, is it safe for that person to be driving a gigantic truck or a bus in the afternoon hours? As I was driving home in the afternoon, I had to swerve and pay attention more than normal (normal traffic in Jakarta is anything but) due to an increase in careless driving. After I got home, I wanted to immediately go run some errands since everything goes crazy in the late afternoon. I saw a woman driving a van on the wrong side of a street soon after leaving my house. She almost hit an oncoming motorbike until her passenger tapped on her shoulder. I don't think the motorbike even noticed. I saw many similar scenarios during the rest of my drive.

This got me wondering if there ends up being more workplace and/or vehicle accidents during Ramadan. Does anybody know of any such statistics? Obviously, a construction worker or a bus driver can't use fasting as an excuse not to do his job. This, in my mind, would create a dangerous situation. Taxi drivers already work 20 hour shifts. How safely can they drive without nourishment? Some jobs cater to this and allow their employees to adjust their working hours so that they can start and finish work earlier than normal. In most cases, these are office jobs which aren't very dangerous to begin with and probably do little more than avert the odd paper cut.

After I had finished my errands and was on my way home, traffic had reached the point of near insanity. It was close to 5 p.m. and everybody was frantically trying to get to where they wanted to be in order to break their fast at approximately 6 p.m. Nobody wants to be stuck in a traffic jam alone in their car when it is time to eat for the first time. This is usually a celebratory event where people get together and have a feast of sorts. Needless to say, my knuckles were pretty white when I did get home due to the increased urgency of exhausted drivers. I saw many opportunistic folks who had set up little table selling snacks for the fast break. The funniest opportunistic thing I saw had to be the Mc Donald's employees taking orders on the street. They were standing at an intersection (in Mc Donald's reflective vests for safety) and taking orders from cars. I assume that these people would get home and soon be greeted by the Mc Donald's delivery man with a combo of their choice ready to eat at sunset. Ronald Mc Donald and his pals are proud to be part of your religious culture.

I would like to close by saying MOHON MA'AF LAHIR BATIN to all of my Muslim friends and wish them a happy and peaceful Ramadan. That being said, I BEG you not to break your fast by eating Mc Donald's or KFC!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


This past weekend was unprecedented as there were so many reasons to celebrate......
1) It was a long weekend
2) It was a non-religious holiday on Monday
3) Monday was Indonesian Independence Day
4) It was the last weekend before the fasting month of Ramadan begins (on Friday)
Needless to say, there were many neighbourhood parties and lots of friends meeting up for barbecues or to have a drink in a pub or club before they close or become very quiet during Ramadan.
I had an interesting time going to a friend's house for a barbecue on Sunday. In the chaos of collecting all of the things I had brought with me in the taxi, I managed to leave my small camera in the taxi. It became apparent to me that I had lost my camera when Blue Bird Taxi called me to ask me if I had lost a camera. I told them that I did and the driver drove back to my friend's house and delivered the camera to me. It was EXACTLY like the Blue Bird commercial. I thanked the driver and insisted that he take some money even though he refused many times before taking it. The irony of this is that I had not given the driver a tip earlier because he didn't have change. He could have kept the camera and I would have just mourned it as being gone forever. I guess Blue Bird Taxis do have the upstanding reputation they claim to have. The only reason I use them is that they are the only semi-reliable taxi that actually shows up at your house in less than 45 minutes when you call them. Lately, they have been arriving at my house less than 5 minutes after I call them. The average is around 20 minutes I'd say.
The rest of the weekend was good. I had a little too much fun on Sunday and didn't really manage to make it outside on Independence Day. The whole reason I had my small camera with me in the first place was to catch some festive photos for my blog. By the obvious lack of photos in today's blog, you can figure out how many photos I managed to take.
In an update to my cat math blog (See July), 3 new kittens joined the flock last night. Their mother seemed to had left them sitting amongst the plants after giving birth. They whimpered literally all night. I was secretly hoping the rats would eat them just so I could get some sleep but I wasn't so lucky. I'm very tired today but that's the way it should be after such an epic weekend, isn't it?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Grave Diggers

The month of fasting known as Ramadan is fast (pardon the pun) approaching. One tradition here is for families to visit the cemetery and pay their respects to dead family members. They pour rose water and rose petals on the plot, say a little prayer and are on their way. This same process is repeated at the end of Ramadan. Any cemetery at this time of year is an odd site for anybody from a western nation. There are many advantageous people selling rose water and rose petals, too many food carts to count, not to mention people selling books and glow sticks right in the foot path of the cemetery. This is not the worst of it by any means.
I was shocked to find out that most Jakartan families do not actually own their burial plot, they rent them forever, literally. It is not uncommon for numerous family members to be buried in the same plot. This I believe is for cost and lack of space. Some cemeteries in Jakarta are the biggest chunk of green space around for days. Here is the screwed up part: Family members must pay $50 or more every year to the cemetery or they will lose their plot. I'm not sure if they dig up the old bodies or just throw a new one on top but that is the deal; pay or lose your "eternal" resting place. It is also customary to give the workers at the cemetery a little tip to make sure that they cut the grass around it and brush the leaves off every so often.
Sadly enough, this is the worst time of year to be forking out cash for constantly cash-strapped Jakartans. The end of Ramadan is not unlike Christmas (er um excuse me I mean the "Holiday Season"). People exchange gifts and whoever can afford to do so goes back home to their village. Obviously, this time of year is not cheap what with all of the festivities and train tickets etc.
This has nothing to do with me or living in Jakarta really but I just thought it was so weird that I needed to write about it. I do like the idea of being buried without a casket, I've always found that a bit over the top but I'd hate to be dug up and left on the side of the road just because my family didn't have a few extra bucks.
So much for "Rest in Peace"

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Dancin' in the Streets

Quite often, weddings or funerals are held in front of a person's home. People completely overtake the street by putting up a makeshift roof and filling the road with chairs or a stage. The front of any home can be transformed into a banquet hall virtually overnight. What is odd about this is that people block the road and set up these structures without any kind of permission. I guess the logic is that everyone will need to use the road for a party at some point so nobody really complains. Today, I woke up to see the house down the road from me setting up for one of these such events. In this instance, it means that I can only leave my house on foot. Anybody wishing to use their motorbike or car will simply have to wait. Today being Saturday, it is not much of an inconvenience. If it were a workday and I was forced to pay for transit to work, I'd probably say well....nothing. in true Javanese fashion, I'd probably just suck it up and pay for a taxi. Luckily, my street does not have much traffic. I have seen streets that have a lot of through traffic get blocked. This can be extremely chaotic and frustrating. Everybody seems to just go with the flow so I do the same.

There was one exception when I couldn't really go with the flow. A couple of years ago, I lived in a different area of town and a different house. The street this house was on had a pretty steady flow of traffic throughout the day. As I was getting ready to go to work, I realized that the house across from mine was setting up for one of these events. I managed to snake my bike through the maze of chairs and made my way to work. Upon returning from work, there was a blockade set up around the corner. An old man standing there told me that I was not allowed to enter. I told him that I lived there and HAD to enter. This man was enjoying playing the cop a little too much and started shouting insults and threatening me. He grabbed my jacket just as I hit the accelerator and he even held on for a few seconds before giving up. There was no way that I was going to leave my bike on the street all night long out in the open almost a kilometer from my house. That night , I managed to get my bike into my gate as there weren't too many chairs set up in the street.

The next day, I inadvertently caused a scene. I opened my gate to take my bike out but didn't realize that somebody had rested a giant floral sign on my gate. Since my gate opened outwards, it knocked over the sign and a few chairs as well. One of the people outside started giving me a hard time. When I pointed out that somebody had rested the sign on my gate and there was literally no exit from my house, somebody else apologized and promised me that it would not happen again. That night, there was no roadblock set up near my house. This saddened me a little as I had envisioned plowing straight through it (and maybe even the makeshift cop) during my drive home. As I got closer to my house a horrendous traffic jam started to reveal itself. There had never been a traffic jam in this spot the whole time I had lived there. Cars were rounding the corner only to hit a dead end of chairs and people on the street. Some of them were trying to turn around, others were trying to park. It was utter chaos. There were dozens of chairs and countless people in between where I was and the entrance to my house. I managed to get my bike parked at a friend's house who lived down the road. Even parking there meant moving some chairs and obnoxiously honking my horn. I know it sounds harsh but the alternative was basically leaving my bike on the street and never seeing it again as it would most likely get stolen. I had to nudge my way through the crowd and hit people with my gate door just to get into my house. As I entered, my roommate was sitting on the couch looking paler than usual. He asked me how I managed to get in and then proceeded to tell me his horrific story of getting home.

Later that night, we found out that it was a funeral for the old man who lived across the street. As it turns out, he was involved with the Indonesian Air Force in some capacity and was a relatively important man. The next day, I didn't even bother trying to get my bike. I simply walked to the road and took a taxi. That night, I once again had to claw and shove in order to get into my own house. 2 days later, the same scenario was still playing out. On returning home from work that night, I had pretty much had enough. The thought of saying something to the people about how "I'm sorry that some old man died but anything more than 5 days of blocking the street, (not to mention the traffic jams being caused on other streets) was pushing their luck" crossed my mind. Fortunately, the street was back to normal when I arrived. The next day, I got my bike from my friend's house and everything went back to normal. The thing that struck me as being the most odd about this whole scenario is that nobody bothered to knock on my door and say "excuse me but we are going to blockade the entrance to your house for the next 5 days or so". Turns out, nobody ever does.

The good thing about that particular funeral is that it makes tents like the one set up on my street today seem to be nothing more than a novelty. The other time when there was a stage in front of my house and people playing very bad and loud music from 10 a.m. until 11 p.m. helped brighten my mindset towards today as well. I can get out of my house and won't have to deal with any old men living out their cop fantasies. I may even go pretend I'm a guest and get a free dinner.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Can I Help You?

Upon entering any large retail chain store in Jakarta, one of the first things you will notice is that there are so many people working. Sometimes there are more employees than customers. One of my oldest and most vivid memories of this is from Gramedia (a large book store that also sells sporting goods, musical instruments, computers, and stationary). Having made my decision on which book I wanted to buy, I proceeded to the checkout counter. One girl scanned the book and (in an amazing display of multitasking) took my money. Another girl put my book into a plastic bag. A different girl took my receipt from the cash register and handed it to yet another new girl who stapled it to the bag and then handed it to me along with my change. I thanked all 4 (or was it 5?) of them and was on my way. This struck me as being strange, there was no lineup and the store was pretty much empty. As the years went by, this phenomenon has begun to seem normal to me.

Fast forward to last weekend. Against my better judgement, I decided to make a Sunday visit to that big box mega store that sells everything you can imagine known as Carrefour. It was not yet noon so I hoped that it wouldn't be too crowded. Luckily, it wasn't very busy with shoppers. The aisles were, however, very congested with sales reps and Carrefour staff stocking shelves. The times that people choose to do things around here always amazes me. When I was a younger man and worked in a supermarket, we used to stock shelves on Tuesday nights 30 minutes before closing when there was 1 shopper in the store, not on the weekend. All of these people and very large pallets can make some aisles very difficult to navigate. Throw over sized shopping carts and deal-drunk drivers and some aisles begin to resemble the traffic jams outside the store. What does amaze me is the sheer look of surprise on some shelf stockers' faces when they realize that they are blocking access to an entire aisle.

My favourite workers are the product reps. They market a certain product or line of products while stocking said product. I don't really know if they are employed by the store or if they are independent and go from store to store. These reps (almost always female) are usually clad in a blouse/skirt combo outfit that features the logo and colours of the product they are selling. One of the first ones I noticed on Sunday was a Pampers diapers rep. Her outfit made a 24 pack of pampers look like the perfect accessory as it was an exact match. As I turned the corner (don't ask why I was on the diaper aisle), she was busy giving her pitch to a very interested customer. This whole exchange is hilarious to me, no matter how many times I hear it. These reps seem to have no real insight into the products they are hawking, they just state the facts. The (translated) pitch on this particular day went something like this "here we have the 12 pack of ultra absorbent for Rp. 30 000. Next to that, we have the 24 pack of ultra absorbent for Rp. 55 000. On the shelf below this, we have the pull-ups 16 pack for Rp. 42 000....." The woman listening to her sales pitch was hanging on her every word. This absolutely blows my mind as they are reading exactly what it says on the package and pointing to the label with the price below the package. If you were to ask them which diaper would best suit a 2.5 year old male who is potty training, they'd most likely start reading the labels and pointing at the prices again. How could anybody possibly make an informed decision without the sales rep present?

A couple of aisles later, I noticed that 6 packs of You-C 1000 were on sale for Rp. 20 000. There were 3 gigantic signs written in marker that said "MAXIMUM 3 PER VISIT". As I was planning on buying some anyways, I proceeded to grab my 3 packs (savings of 1 dollar, yess!). Right after the first pack entered my cart, the You-C 1000 sales rep literally ran over to me and proceeded to explain to me that they were on sale for Rp. 20 000. I told her that I was sold and that I was going to buy 3 packs. She then pointed out that they come in lemon and orange flavour. This solved the mystery in my mind of why half of the packs are yellow and half of them are orange. I told her that I liked lemon and that was why I was filling my cart with 3 packs of lemon. Diligent in her work, she tried to persuade me to get 1 more pack of orange just to try it. I then pointed at one of the gigantic signs that said "MAXIMUM 3 PER VISIT" and told her that I already had 3 packs. When I did this, she looked genuinely stunned as if she had no idea that you weren't allowed to buy more than 3. After a few seconds of looking like a deer in headlights, she asked me if I wanted to buy some You-C lemon water. I politely declined at which point she pointed out that the water also came in orange flavour. Again I politely declined and made my way to the checkout.

Now let's say for example you wanted to buy something expensive like an air conditioning unit at Carrefour. You would most likely have to search for somebody to help you. If you are lucky enough to find somebody, they will have no knowledge of the appliance in question. If one asks a question about a specific model, they will tell you that that one is bagus (good). If you ask about a different one, you'll probably get the same answer. If you tell them that you would like to purchase a certain model, they may tell you that that model is out of stock without even going into the back to check because they don't feel like doing that. This has happened to me a few times. If you are lucky, you can ask another clerk who will promptly go to the stock room and get you what you have asked for. On one occasion, I wanted to buy a water dispenser. They had around a dozen demo models set up. Turned out that 7 of them were completely sold out and that they had not bothered to take down the floor model or put up any 'sold out' signs. When I asked which ones they did have in stock (after the guy had gone to the back 3 times), he told me that he wasn't sure. If any of the Carrefour brass read this blog, I have a suggestion: Switch the product reps with the clueless people who sell expensive appliances. I don't need assistance when choosing the right bug spray but I may need some from time to time when attempting to buy a washing machine or a refrigerator. The only problem is that I don't think that the guys from electronics and home appliances would look very good in those product rep skirts.