Monday, March 31, 2008

Praise be to age

In Indonesia, as well as in many other parts of Asia, age is not viewed as a debilitating sickness that ought to make you seek refuge in some random retirement house among your peers. Much to the contrary: it is what gives you your rightful place in society. This TV ad from a cigarette company (ok... sorry for the source) is a funny example of this cultural bias. You don't need to understand anything except for their tag line "Not old yet. Not yet allowed to talk".

I'm having some problems with Blogger apparently, so you can also watch it here

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Visa on arrival

Somewhere in Jakarta you'll find a frail old couple with broken hearts. Last Thursday, they were crushed by the mighty fist of the American law that forbids them to see their newly-wed daughter. She lives in the US with her Yankee husband, but her parents "are not qualified" to be granted a tourist visa and set foot onto the Land of the Free.

A friend of mine witnessed the scene, while she was quietly waiting at the American embassy for her 7 o'clock interview in order to get her own visa. She is a thirty-something professional, fluent in 4 languages including English and French, with a decent salary (and therefore a healthy bank account to show the autorities), and, last but not least, an American friend who voucher for her - this damn Yankee she fell in love with. She expected a longuish interview where she'd explain why she wanted to visit the US and display all the required documents that proves a single woman from the Thirld World can support herself in this rich country. Instead she had a couple minutes sliding the documents to a government agent, stiffly seated behind a glass window, while the 30 persons waiting their turn behind her were privy to the details of her personal life. And finally, she got a stamp: NO. Not qualified. End of the story. Next!

This made me think: when, ever, has a Westerner had to go through such a humiliating process in order to get the right to visit any country? In Indonesia, you fly in, wait in line, pay 25 bucks and you're good to go for a month. You might say, were you an American who desires to see the beloved land of North Korea, you'd have problems. Okay, but still. Take my case: while I was a student, I also fell for one of those God-damned Yanks. For three years I flew to the US far more often than my meager student allowance would allow (ah! Credit! Savior of fresh flame!) Believe me, I was a far bigger risk to become an illegal immigrant than my Indonesian friend. But I never had the need to even apply for a visa; I am French - and even that is more welcomed than a Muslim.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Orangutan life

Here is an audio bit mentionned in the earlier post, Man, Forest, Man of the Forest.

You'll meet with Lone Nielsen, a blond Dane who lives in Central Kalimantan, in the Indonesian part of Borneo island, where she manages the orangutan rehabilitation center of a local NGO.

We talked in the little forest that borders her camp; it's the playground of the baby orangutans that she cares for. If you listen with good earphones, you might feel like you're there with us, in the rain forest...

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Battle of the Bumis

Hate Thy Neighbor. Quite a universal rule, isn't it? Well, if you live in Indonesia, your neighbor is Malaysia. And boy! Do you hate them.

It will hit you as soon as you arrive in the country, and it's all the weirder that both share more than a few commonalities. Most of the ethnic Malays from Malaysia migrated from the Indonesian archipelago some centuries ago, mostly from Sumatra and Sulawesi islands; so the language is very similar (just a few more differences than between American and British English), the cultural base pretty much the same, and the religion and customs, too. During the independence movement, there were even some people who were dreaming of creating a big Malay country that would join both of them (and some of today's radical Islamists are still hoping for it); they saw it as a mishap in history that Indonesia was ruled by the Dutch while Malaysia was part of Her Majesty's empire.

But things did not play that well - both countries actually fought a covert war just after Malaysia's independence. Since 2000, the latent hate has been livened by a series of rows that raged from outcries at the treatment of the Indonesian migrant workers in Malaysia to the scandal of the thieving of a song to the tensions over the sovereignity of the Sipadan islands (and the oil around it).

Indonesians see Malaysia as a fur-coated tart, whose only call to glory is that her husband's family trailer was luckily discovered sitting on an untapped oil field - the haughty Nouveau Riche syndrome. Malaysians see Indonesians as a bunch of hicks who are far too numerous for their own good - albeit quite useful as your underpaid maid.

What about us? Who's the best? I propose a poll (next column), where you can make up your mind based on the few points below comparing both countries. Please note that 1. I don't mean to tickle the nationalist pride of either of these people; I like 'em both and 2. it is a silly list compiled by a silly foreigner who don't know a damn about what she's talking about anyway.

- 1: Airports. A win for Malaysia - hands down. To its defense, Sukarno Hatta airport in Jakarta does have some local flavour, by which I mean a couple of traditional wood carvings and a javanese-shaped brown roof that provides some character. But that's all there is to it. As for KLIA... Ah!!!! KLIA. Marvel of new technology, beauty of steel engineering, free wifi everywhere, efficiency and logical organization (a rarely found quality, in my modest opinion). It's been voted several times best airport in the world/continent/region, and if you stop by around here, it's a nice choice for transit.

- 2: Taxi drivers. I'll have to give my vote to my dear country. Granted, sometimes Jakarta's taxi drivers can be a little too chatty, so if you want to read your book or listen to your Ipod podcast you have to resort to the old trick of pretending you don't understand a word they're saying: not very honest, but it spares the akwardness of dismissing friendly chatter. Whereas in KL (Kuala Lumpur, for the uninitiated) I've actually been yelled at by a taxi driver for not being able to give him directions to the street where I wanted to go to. No comment.

- 3: gruesome murders. That's a tough one. Munir's killing scenario, in Indonesia, was definitely worthy of a James Bond movie (the old ones): imagine a prominent human rights activist, very well known for uncovering foul play by the army and the dictatorship, poisoned with arsenic (arsenic!!!) while on board a Singapour-Amsterdam flight and found dead, foam on the side of the lips, at landing. That's a good one: guess who might be behind that? But Malaysia had the Altantuya Shaariibuu case: a beautiful model from Mongolia (yep), with political connections that went as high as the Deputy Prime Minister and Defense minister (or, shall I say if I do not want to be tried for diffamation, "are said to reach..."). She was shot dead, and afterwards some people thought they'd make her body disappear by blowing it up, using a type of explosive in service among the Malaysian security forces. Unluckily though, it did not dawn on them that pieces of flesh scattered on a few hundred meters perimeter might indeed attract attention. Hmmmmm.... Can't decide on who wins this battle.

- 4: civil society. Well, a big win for Indonesia, because although Malaysia is officially a democracy, wide range censorship and autocensorship does not really nurture a heathy debate in a country (with the notable exception of Malaysiakini), whereas Indonesia's is quite lively. So much so that I even heard not one, but several Malaysian activists saying that Indonesians are well ahead of them in terms of democratization. Please dwell for a minute on the impact of such a statement: it's huge. It's as if a Frenchman said that the United States have Culture: even though you might find some evidence of it, your sheer genes are preventing you from uttering such a blasphemy.

- 5: capital city. It's all linked to the fact that Malaysia is pretty rich, when Indonesia sadly remains a third world country. Jakarta is a mess: polluted, with a urbanization plan that is a challenge to any logical mind. KL is teeny tiny (in Asian standards), with a glorious public transportation system, pockets of green in its outskirts that remind you there's some jungle out there. Locals do complain about the traffic; that makes Jakartans scoff. And Ladies, in KL you can walk around in heels without fearing the treacherous pothole that is an ever-looming threat to your delicate ankles in Jakarta.

- 6: food. I personally love KL's food diversity that reflects the cultural variety of the country: 60% of Malays, 30% Chinese and 8% Indians. The chinese street food is fantastic, there are little Indian eateries everywhere, and of course all the traditional Malay fare. The mix of it all is a real pleasure. I have to say though, to come back to the issue of the nationalist arguments between the two countries, that I was shocked to be offered once in a restaurant a "traditional malaysian soup", called Soto Ayam Madura. Soto means "soup"; "ayam" is "chicken" and "Madura" is... an Indonesian island off of Java. So much for the "traditional Malaysian" label.

Now please, Ladies and Gentlemen, to your votes! You might argue that those random categories are not enough to judge the merits of the nations. Why not... but this is my blog, so I do whatever I want.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Just a bunch of normal people...

I'm the kind of person who cannot help but look at those people with fascinating jobs as semi-gods: the UN guy (or girl) that dedicates his life to bring Human Rights and Democracy to oppressed people, the NGO girl (or guy) who spends months in the armpit of the world treating people so that their kids will not die of the first diarrhea that crosses their paths... Well, in the world we're living in now you have to realize this is quite a naive attitude ;-)

And it's not only because of the UN rape scandals or the plain stupidity of blindly dumb people (remember the Noah's Ark scandal? Those Frenchies who wanted to kidnap poor little African children on the generous - but false - premise that war left them orphans?). Some trips to East Timor made me realize that the semi-gods are just normal people. What a scoop.

First of all, let me apologize to the fans of East Timor - they are not that many, but they might be quite shocked that there could be an entry about this nation on a blog dedicated to Indonesia, the country that occupied it for two decades and was responsible for quite a few massacres there, not least during their forced departure from it (1999).

A friend once told me that the chance for Timor is that it has "East" in its name; that's the only way for the majority of the world to be able to place it roughly on a map, i.e. in Asia. (By the way, the spell check of Blogger does not even know the word "Timor"). So, for those who are not quite as familiar with East Timor, here you go: it's a tiny half island sandwiched between Indonesia and Australia with just under a million inhabitants, former Portuguese colony, poorest country in the region (apparently, right after Yemen, but it just depends on where you place Asia's limits, right?).

After Indonesia left in a bloodbath, destroying most of the buildings of Dili, the capital, East Timor was poised to become the success story of the United Nations, that undertook the huge task of building a new nation from scratch. Imagine: there was not a single trained judge or lawyer, most of the elementary school teachers had left, and even today in Dili it is very hard to find anyone who would be a proficient plumber, not even to mention a clerk or nurse - some Members of Parliament never graduated high school, I've been told... So the UN still have a very big - and visible - presence in the country.

Well, the armed forces is just a part of it, albeit the most visible one - and pretty necessary. But the UN is also doing a fantastic job, helping build the much-needed capacities of the Timorese, and this type of solidarity is definitely something that the international community should be proud of. It's way beyond the purpose of this blog to discuss the UN's results in the country; tons of experts are already working on that. Just a small thing though: it is very strange to realize how normal the UN employees are. They have their big white SUVs, hang out in caf├ęs and sometimes get drunk. Nothing out of the ordinary... except that there is a whole segment of the national economy that is now solely working for the pleasure of those westerners, and far beyond the grasp of the Timorese.

Once last year I went to a party organized for the UN staff. It was a little outside of Dili, on the beach, with free flowing sangria, international music and some pretty serious dance-floor action (I remember this girl who was wearing a very flimsy white dress with a very small and visible g-string, for the big pleasure of the soldiers, who you can recognize because of their very short hair). What was strange, though, was when I realized that there was a couple of Timorese guys standing at a respectful distance from the dancing crowd of these "semi-gods". The guests were not at all willing to mix socially with the Timorese people, even though their sacred mission is to build a nation for them.

I don't want to blame the UN people: they're stuck in the country for months at a time, and a good old-fashioned, sangria-sponsored shindig is something I won't condemn. But it was eye-opening to witness the clash between groups that everything separates: culture, and especially money. Some of them were paid to do good; the others were waiting for the good to come out of the dancing crowd.

Other than that, East Timor is a fascinating country, very beautiful.

You can listen here to a song I recorded in an orphanage in Gleno, a small town perched on coffee-growing hills. Those kids were very moving.

I've stolen the pictures below from the website of a photographer, N. Rico. He has more, really nice!

Super-French cleaner

My neighbour is the best cleaner ever - and he is nothing less than an Italian-trained cleaner. So if you really need to get this filthy stain out of your couch, go Jalan Bangka Raya, in the South of Jakarta (remember, when you smooshed down the big cockroach that was innocently hanging out there... Those stuff's innards leave a musty odor. Just kidding).
Anyway, I just love my cleaner's ad: he does it all. See? Dry Cleaning; laundry; and... wet cleaning technology. Weird... I've always thought the wet-cleaning technology was like that.