Jakarta Email IV

Blogs are hard to maintain:

After many weeks of staying here, the hotel has started rotating through its staff. They recently changed the person who works at the front desk. The women who used to work there could talk in Indonesian and in English and so was quite effective for being able to convey needs and problems to. I am not sure why they rotated her out from her usual shift. There was always the issue of her boyfriend and how his job in the Police Department seemed to involve him getting newer and bigger cars then his pay should allow for. I of course have no idea whether or not the small-scale corruption had any part to play in this at all.


One thing I forgot to do before coming to Indonesia was actually checking up on the history of the country. After having spent time here and reading up a little bit, I have gotten a very quick and basic grasp of the history of the nation.

This is the History of Indonesia: first the Dutch came and kept the people oppressed by keeping them uneducated and dumb. Then the Japanese came and used the same facilities the Dutch used to torture the Indonesians but they weren't around for long due to World War Two and the Americans. After a Crisis in Parliamentary Democracy, Sukarno (a leftish autocrat) ruled the country. He was followed in the 70's by Suharto, a righish autocrat in so much as he was not in league with Beijing. Both of them used the same strategy the Dutch did, "Dumb Down and Rule." Today Indonesia has a large but unskilled workforce which also has the reputation for being lazy because it was used to getting government handouts. A major problem is that foreign companies don't even want to hire cheap Indonesian labor since they are just not good enough to hire for basic work. Considering how many problems Indonesia has had since its Independence (which they celebrated last Friday) it would probably have been better for them to be colonized by the British.

Sure that sounds a bit harsh coming out of my Anglo-American mouth, but what about when it comes out of the mouths of an Indonesian?

A few weeks ago I met an Indonesian who said exactly what I said. This Indonesian also happen to seem to have been one of the more informed ones I met in my time here. His specialty should not be surprising; he is a Historian.


I decided that I needed to go to a couple of Jakarta's museums while I was here. Lonely Planet was being exceptionally unhelpful and the combined powers of the interwebs were only able to quickly produce a quick list of all the possible tourist locations in Jakarta. Surprisingly, this list can fit onto a single piece of A4 paper, once formatted. Two places seemed like sensible options, one was "The Jakarta National Museum" and the other was "The Jakarta Museum of History." It's great when names like those tell you everything and nothing at exactly the same time.


"The Jakarta National Museum" is in the CBD and government area of the city. The building is white and clean and rather big. It's essentially a sort of giant warehouse that the government has refurbished and attached to another government building to make it look presentable. (Or it was a government warehouse that was attached to another building before being turned into a museum). I call it a warehouse because that is how it is treated. They throw stuff into it and hope that the people who walk around it can figure out where everything it supposed to go. Sort of like a bad puzzle.

The set up was simple. They took stuff that seemed similar to other stuff and they were all thrown into a room because they look similar. If there was no space for the stuff, then it was put into the hallways. Most the exhibits were only very loosely tied together, and it was sometimes hard to get a sense of the proper context for things because of the way they were presented. For example, there was a large collection of Chinese porcelain, all in one room. I assume that this is relevant because Indonesia has a sizable Chinese immigrant population but as far as the museum is concerned, porcelain is just cool to have. (Fun Fact: The Chinese Immigrants run the Indonesian economy because they are the only ones who know how to run a business. Some of them are fantastically wealthy which is why there is much resentment towards them from the locals. This resentment was why many Chinese were attacked during the 1998 riots. I also hear that in order to keep their wealth safe, the Chinese like to turn their hard currency into Gold and carry it around with them. Apparently that's safer then just putting it in a bank.)

In addition to the Chinese pots, there were mock-ups of certain types of boats that were used by the earliest Indonesians, as well as many Buddha statues thrown around for good measure.  Some of their exhibits were interesting, like their exhibit on Thailand. It was very informative, clear, and surprisingly interesting. It also was paid for by the Thai government. Still, it was a good room, it air conditioning and everything.

To be fair, the Museum is renovating, and they have built a new ultra-modern wing to showcase some of their other items. I unfortunately did not find this part of the museum till the end of my time there (I needed to leave soon since I wanted to make it to the other museum before it closed) so while the new wing seemed more thought out and much less like a government warehouse, I unfortunately was not able to spend much time there to soak up any of it.

The drive to the other museum ("The Jakarta Museum of History") was long. This was of course due to the traffic, which was bottlenecking the city again. The first museum was in the CBD while the second one was in the old part of the city, nearer to the port. I was annoyed about the traffic because the info I had said the museum closed early even on weekends and by my watch I was pushing it.

Such fears were ultimately unnecessary since its Jakarta and things like "closing times" are just suggestions that are offered but not necessarily followed. Sort of like project deadlines. In any case, it turned out I was not going to be late at all.


"Old Batavia" as I prefer to refer to it is not like downtown Jakarta. The buildings are painted with brighter colors and they're no sky-rises. People are also friendlier and much more willing to engage in conversation to the best of their (sometimes surprising) English abilities. Batavia is what the Dutch called the capital of Indonesia and since the city was important as a trading port, the Dutch set up shop closer to the harbor. This was the part of the city where the colonists ruled.


As we pulled up to the museum, I assumed the it would just be small and not necessarily all that informative. The building was squat, painted in what I remember to have been a sort of bright yellow. There was no clear front entrance path so I had to find a break in the side railing and walk on some rather new cobble stone steps. I entered and after paying the entrance fee I was greeted by the museum curator.

It turns out that in some cases, museum curators in Jakarta have so little to do during the day that they are able to offer personal tours of their establishments. My curator's (nick)name was "Aldy" and he had a surprisingly clear grasp of English. What was more surprising was that his English was learned by being self taught with books and by just being friendly and talking to tourists. It also helped that was a sought after person among the various Embassy personnel in the city but I am not surprised, he really knows his stuff.

It turns out that the "Jakarta Museum of History" actually used to be the former Colonial City Hall, Governor's Residence, Court House, and Torture & Execution building. It was quite the multi-tasker. We started in the dungeon. It was small and dark, an appropriately bad place to spend your final days. It was explained that the facilities were used by the Japanese for the short time they were in Indonesia. The second torture place we saw was a water well where inmates would have been thrown down and either have drowned or try and keep afloat out of futility. For extra kick, the Dutch would often throw leeches down there as well.

He told me that not all the Dutch governors made extensive use of these facilities against the local population. To show me this, we went to the second floor of the building.

The second floor had a fairly large conference room with a rather large painting on the wall. The guide explained that the painting was not there originally and had not even been painted back when the Dutch ruled the colony. It was a typical European style-portrait of one of the former Dutch governor. Aldy explained that he was the one Dutch Governor who was a more benevolent dictator and who had a reputation among the Indonesians of being more fair and equitable. For this reason, the Indonesian government requested that the Dutch government send over a large portrait of Indonesia's "least mean governor" for them to hang in the museum.

The fate of being a governor who was possibly more careful and discriminating in his use of capital punishment was not pleasant. The tour took me to the balcony. He explained that from here, the Dutch could see the prisoners below get shot and their bodies be thrown into the sewer to flow to the river (they only recently started to discover the skeletons of the bodies underground while doing unrelated construction work). From the Balcony, they would also have been able to see how the more benevolent Governor was killed by the Dutch. His punishment was to have his arms and legs tied to a different horse, and to have each horse run in an opposite direction, stretching his body at all four corners and physically breaking him that way.

It was at this point that Aldy explained that as far as he was concerned, the Dutch were bad colonialists and that it would have been much better for Indonesia if they had been ruled by the British instead. He is a perceptive man. He knew that Singapore and Malaysia were under British rule and that they have both turned out rather well. He felt that the main problem was that the Dutch never taught the locals any language. While it would have been ideal in the long run to learn English it would not have hurt if they were taught Dutch as well. Instead there was no history of any education being done, and as a result, the Indonesians suffer from mass simplicity. (Not mass stupidity, just simplicity.)

The Dutch attitude is not all that surprising in hindsight, Indonesia was essentially just a giant base for the Dutch East India Company and so they never really settled or set up some sort of semi-permanent residence, they just ruled the island to protect the company.

Aldy did not have any seem to have any resentment towards the colonialists. His training as a historian seemed to suggest that he had a full appreciation for why things happened and was more concerned with informing those who came to the museum more then anything else. Although he does appreciate Indonesian culture he was clearly educated in aspects of the Western tradition. He took the tour into another room that had a large wooden tapestry with a Greek deity in the middle. To my surprise he pointed out that it was Athena. He also pointed out a fresco which was painted over an entrance. He explained that it was brought over from the Netherlands back when Indonesia was a colony and that is depicted the famous Biblical scene were king Solomon has the baby and he intends to split it. As he explained "It's a scene of Biblical justice and wisdom which fit in with this building being a courthouse." I think he may be the one of the few Indonesians who actually knew anything about the history of his own country and foreign ones as well.

Despite his surprising appreciation for Western culture Aldy was still very appreciative of aspects of Indonesian heritage, notably, their shadow puppets. You may have heard or seen them, the puppets which get their image transposed onto a giant screen with the aid of light. They are a big part of native Indonesian culture and Aldy's entire family is made up of professional puppet makers. He is of course one himself and hopes to raise his son to be one to. They aren't easy to make. The process of getting the cow skin, drying it, cutting and painting it, it can take up to two months.

The puppets depict deities and archetypes from Indonesian legend (he refers to each characters in ways that Westerners can understand such as "This is the Indonesian Superman, he was invented in 500 AD.") They are very popular with Embassy personnel and business travelers. This is a nation that still believes in ghosts so it probably helps around the office to show you are trying not to offend the bad demons to much.

Yes, many Indonesians still believe in ghosts, spirits, and demons. Not the in western sense where you may be a little bit scared of a scary house if it makes noise. In the Indonesian sense, you can get leave from your office if you make the case that you need to see the local shaman in order to get yourself cleared of any curse that was put on you by the demon you annoyed last weekend.

I blame such unfounded superstitions on a lack of education.


P.S. I recently got to spend a short holiday in Singapore. There are many ways to compare and contrast Jakarta and Singapore, such as by how clean or safe one is compared to the other. There is one comparison which I think underscores the main differences well though.

In Singapore, there are seatbelts for the passengers in all the different Taxis. In Jakarta, there is only brand of Taxi that is trusted and even they don't have seatbelts for passengers.

Jakarta Email III

No point in investing in a blog if its not going to be used right?

A friend of mine recently asked whether Indonesians practice the well-known "Asian Values", namely "Respectful Silence", "No Vocal Confrontation" and "Group Consensus". It is always dangerous to generalize so with that disclaimer out of the way, here are my blanket statements. There is a very strong perception from other foreigners I have talked to that the answer is a "Yes" but with some rather important clarifications.

Indonesia is not like Japan. People don't come to work thinking "How can I make sure that every sacrifice I make today is for the company?" This is because Indonesians are surprisingly normal in that they don't like coming into work. Whether they are more or less lazy then the global average is an interesting question. It is important to remember that I am working at an ad agency so there is a lot more creativity and flexibility with how time gets managed. That said it does seem to be slightly harder to convince people to come into a meeting room at a set time.

What about the concern that Indonesians are much more quiet, polite, and respectful then those loud foreigners? Especially those foreigners who state their loud and rude opinions on every issue with commentary such as "This Traffic Sucks!" or "You people need to learn how to clean your dishes!" or "Why the hell did you think it was a good idea to clean your dishes in the river!" I personally feel that these are all very valid points but since the UN works only a couple floors below me, I need to remember that all cultures are equal and that my "opinions" about the "facts" are just my "different points of view and that I should learn not to be a cultural imperialist".

Indonesians in general have a reputation of keeping a lot of animosity and "strong opinions" to themselves and their friends. However, when they are out of work or with their friends, they usually let it rip and unleash a furry about their actual opinion. While this is in many ways pretty normal for just about every group of friends I have ever had, Indonesians have a reputation for being particularly big on this. What that means in practice is that there is a tendency to have an extra high level of guarded defensiveness when dealing with people. Significantly less trust when dealing with anyone whom you don't know personally since you have every reason to be confident that they will find what ever you propose to them to be insane but they will never tell that to you openly.

It should be noted that there is also a tendency for Indonesians to pick out and notice those around them to tend not to observe these social norms. Whether the person in question is a foreigner who speaks his or her mind more frequently or even a local who dares to suggest that someone is not actually meeting a deadline. These sorts of differences tend to be important enough to make a note about them.

In summary, in my short time here, I get the feeling that people have identified an expected Indonesian way of behavior. It would be wrong to say that everyone follows it but curiously, those who don't are singled out for going against the grain.

Since I would probably not be having any work here at all in Jakarta if it were not for the wonders of Globalization, I feel that it makes sense to bring up the brand which best expresses this concept. Starbucks. Is it possible that there is anything to write that would actually be unique about this Seattle export whose important element of success is that it is standardized around the entire world? Or is the only way to talk about Starbucks over seas is to bemoan how it is Starbucks?

I only got around to visiting my first Indonesian Starbucks early last week and the result was striking. I saw the highest concentration of foreign people in a single room in the whole of Jakarta. Their malls are not like this, locals like to go there. Their restaurants are not like this, upscale locals like to eat there. Even the offices are not like this; foreigners tend to be speckled about. But here in Jakarta, the Starbucks at lunch time has ten foreigners on their laptops, and no one else.

And it was not just any laptop they were using. They were using Apple Macs. Not just any generic Apple laptop, they were all using PowerBooks (which is coincidently what I am using right now to type this.) I am less shocked that this is the reality; business travelers like/need coffee and Starbucks sells coffee. An Apple Mac fits in with the image that "I am professional but not too professional that I can't be cool to" which is what business travelers likes to present. That all makes sense and I can buy it. What I could not understand is why it would be absent of any locals at all. Now you may think my confusion to be naïve. "Its obvious" you think to yourself "locals just don't like Starbucks coffee! Why should they?"

There is just one slight problem with this. This is not just any Starbucks, it is a Twenty-Four Hour Starbucks. Most people I talked to in the office were both proud of this and claimed it was the first Twenty-Four Hour Starbucks in the world. I am skeptical about that claim but have not had time to check.

Now I would only open a Twenty Four Hour Starbucks for two possible reasons:

  1. I know that I will get enough customers for 24 hours to make the cost of running worth it.
  2. I want to experiment with running a Starbucks for 24 hours.

 There is of course the third reason that cannot be discounted:

3.  I am Starbucks and I could build a coffee shop on the top of Mt. Everest even if it won't make any money just because I just can.

But I am going to (possibly wrongly) give the company the benefit of the doubt.

Back to the original question. Why would anyone bother to build a Starbucks if its only customers are going to be a small community of ex-pats? Why even keep it open for as long as twenty-four hours?

It turns out that the answer is (depending how you look at it) either comforting or disheartening. Comforting because it suggests that people from all walks of life are not that different and indeed we can all agree to sit down and enjoy coffee. Disheartening if you were hoping that Seattle did not have the answer to everything. It turns out that while Starbucks's business is very slow in the mornings or during lunch, that in the late evenings it gets packed. This makes sense from what I have seen. None of my Indonesian co-workers have any sort of espresso fix despite them being in jobs where you would normally expect it. They all prefer to smoke their stress away and smoke themselves awake. So social smoking has replaced any form of coffee drinking.

The huge business is in the late evenings (9-12pm) and that also makes sense. Jakarta is just not a safe place to walk around or travel by foot by night. If you and a group of friends have decided to hang out somewhere for the evening, you might as well go for the 24 hour Starbucks which has a security guard.

I have heard some people say that Starbucks it poised to become the next East India Tea Company. I disagree. The use of the future tense gives the misinformed impression that you are waiting for something to happen when it is clear to me that it already has. I will admit that I am curious for some other company to come and gain the same sort of love/hate relationship with the world that Starbucks has. I suppose McDonalds could come close.

There is a growing expectation that somehow you are not an authentic rich person unless you have a crazy hobby. I don't know how true this is since a lot of the world's most extravagantly rich people tend to make their hobby part of their work. Richard Branson's hobby is to build spaceships which people may one day be able to pay to ride. Donald Trump's hobby is to build skyscrapers that are bombastic but also kind of cool. And Bill Gate's hobby (when he is not spending money on saving Africa) is to go and write com-computer operating systems.

The curious thing about Jakarta is that if you are a foreigner in Jakarta with a moderate level salary, you are already a millionaire. I have already mentioned in past emails how the US Dollar is essentially the equivalent to carrying gold in your wallet. $1000 comes out to 1,000,000 rupiah and since most companies which assign you abroad will pay for your rent and utilities as well as give you an ex-pat salary, just being paid a regular salary is enough to catapult you into the higher socio-economic bracket.

What to these suddenly wealthy people do with their time? There are several things: 

  1. Eat a lot of sushi. Good sushi is usually expensive and comes in small portions, so it is rather impressive to lay down 90,000 rupiah for lunch since in your mind you can think "I just spent $10 on what would be an expensive delicacy in some parts of the world!"
  2. Go to the expensive movie theater as opposed to the regular movie theater. I actually am convinced that they are both of the same quality except that the lobby for the expensive movie theater is larger. It also has a room where people can play with an Xbox while they wait for the film to start, while the regular movie theater just has a regular lobby. The regular theater costs 25,000 rupiah ($3) and the expensive one costs 50,000 Rupiah ($5). By the way, I hope you have figured out how the Rupiah to Dollar conversion system works by now.
  3. Go and buy lots and lots of pirated DVDs. The best scenes are not the foreigners with two bags of pirated loot, that's to be expected. It is when you see the whole family browsing the DVD rack on a Sunday (Mom, Dad, Son and Daughter) since you can tell that this is the parent's idea of a quality weekend spent together.
  4. Mountain biking! This is a very fun hobby and I got to try it with a co-worker last week. Its sort of like skiing but with a lot less control and a lot more speed.
  5. Buy a 5,000,000 rupiah ($5000!) Japanese Mellon. Quick background for those not familiar with the issue: for some reason, the Japanese like to sell melons that run for extortionist prices. For reasons that make even less sense, they like to export those melons and sell them for crazy prices abroad as well. I don't have the faintest clue who actually buys them at the supermarkets in Jakarta. Probably the Japanese.


I want to end this email with a short bit about Jakarta "natural beauty", or the lack of it. Jakarta is essentially urban and (unfortunately) very smelly. There is a haze that hangs over the city because of the pollution and so it is pretty impossible to get a view of the horizon and the rest of the skyline. There are thankfully, places to go to avoid this.

The drive to go mountain biking is about one and a half hours out from the city, to a mountain in the West. (The best part of the ride is when you approach the town of "Lazy" and the traffic then sets in.) I was fortunate to end up riding cross-country with two other expatriates. One was a Texan who had been spending his time teaching English in the city. The other was a Dutch businessman. In addition to just being able to appreciate the heavy foliage that was surprisingly free of mosquitoes, they pointed out two things that someone who was new to the location would not have realized.

The first, was that it was only this far out from Jakarta that anyone is able to actually hear any birds in the tree. We never saw any, but I suspect that you are not necessarily supposed to expect that much. While this is probably similar to other cities (pigeons seem to be the only avian wildlife in most urban areas) something like this happening in Jakarta provides a sense of urgency to the situation. You realize that Jakarta does not have birds in the cities not because of the standard effects of urbanization, but because it is Jakarta and the birds were probably chased out or killed by the locals or the government. I don't know for sure. But it's not that hard to imagine.
The other thing the pointed out was that despite being both far out from the city and in a rather scenic location, that the mountain we were riding on was littered extensively. I don't consider myself to an environmental activist of any caliber, but there is something wrong with this notion that plastic bottles will somehow not be there if you just wait long enough. I have tried to wonder what causes this. Is it really a sign that you are in a developed nation with a working civil society if people simply remember to throw out their trash? Is it a sign that a great economic threshold has been crossed in a country when people come to the realization that plastic is not a biodegradable substance? Or can I simply blame this on (of all things that are currently failing in the country) the education system?

The real clincher was when I was informed that most of the litter tends to accumulate during the weekends and holidays when people go into the mountain to hike. It's even better to do this when you are wearing an "I love nature" shirt.

That's all for this email. As always I hope your holidays are going well and I hope to see you all in good time. The next email will talk about what was probably one of the most interesting museums I have been to in ages. Trust me, its more exciting then it sounds.


Jakarta II

I am on an internship with an advertising agency that has its offices here. I am getting a general introduction to the way in which they do business out in the Wild East, as well as getting a sense for office life in general. I have not been behind a desk the whole time though, since the business is advertising that also means photo-shoots for print ads as well as shooting for television commercials. My trainee requirements mean that I have to see how photo shoots get done and so I have come along to a few of their projects. One of these events happened about a week ago. I was told that I would be going to see a photo shoot take place and that the place was called "Beautiful Mountain ." I foolishly assumed that this would actually take place in a mountain. It turns out that "Beautiful Mountain " is the name of a golf club and course.

It turns out that golf courses are curiously great places to take photo shoots since you get a lot of nice "nature" to put in your background but the entire environment is controlled so you don't have to worry about anything unexpected. The road network that already exists to facilitate golf carts also means that you have a pre-existing path that is already waiting to be used so you can drive your equipment around with you. It all makes sense, but that does not change the fact that these places tend to have little shade and summers in Indonesia are much like how they would be expected anywhere else in the world, (with the exception of the southern hemisphere) hot, humid, and sticky.

We could not get far out of the city so there was still a lot of pollution making it hard to get a good look at anything that was an actual distance away but there were still some interesting sights. You get a better sense of the Muslim nature of the country by the Mosques that are out here, they seemed to be bigger and the minarets taller. Even if that is just a visual illusion created by the lack of high rise skyscrapers it still helps support the general impression that Jakarta is not very much like the rest of the country. Though such a statement sounds about as educated as saying "Urban Areas are different from Rural Areas", in a place like Indonesia, those differences matter.

One person who shall remain nameless replied to the last email with the one sentence reply "But how is the food?" My answer: "Really Spicy." One of the curious natures of work at the agency is that sometimes people can't stay our here because their stomachs just can't handle the food.

Short history lesson about the food. Indonesia is one of those European made countries where a bunch of colonists took out their pens and their maps and decided what should constitute a country. Past successful experiments include the former Yugoslavia, Iraq , the rest of the Middle East, and many parts of Africa. Obvious political consequences aside, one of the biggest problems that this means when talking about Indonesian food is that I am talking about the types of food form several different island cultures who may not normally have anything to do with each other. The people from Bali don't eat the same things as the people from Western New Guinea. So just keep in mind that my analysis of Indonesian food is probably about as correct as a tourist in America who will try to talk about New England clam chowder, Chicago Deep Dish Pizza, and The New York Bagel, in a single paragraph.

One of the first questions I was persistently asked by my co-workers when I got in was "Have you had Indonesian food yet?" After asking what constituted Indonesian food, the expatriates I was working with answered honestly that the local delicacy was "Fried Chicken and Rice." While this is a slightly humorous take on the situation, it is accurate. The Indonesians actually fry a lot of things and fried (or just generally cooked) Chicken with Rice is very popular. The best evidence of this is that KFC has more outlets here then McDonalds (190 compared to about 100 or so) and even the McDonalds menu has had to compensate by offering fried chicken and rice alongside their hamburger menu.

However, if we want to get more authentic, Fried Chicken is less pervasive. It is possible to get what would be considered a fairly regular meal at some restaurants. Something like rice with chicken or mutton and an assortment of vegetables. While this sounds fairly regular, this sort of meal is often complemented by oxtail soup which is actually very delicious. Oxtail meat has a very soft texture but sometimes there is more bone on the pieces then meat.

Moving in a more extreme direction is the spicy food. Spicy Indonesian food comes from one of the main islands (I suspect Java but I may be wrong) and is a world onto itself. The selection of dishes has several recognizable items, chicken, beef, fish, and rice, but the spice involved is insane. Local Indonesians are so used to the spice that its possible for them to discern the different tastes that get generated between "moderately spicy food", "very spicy food" and "extremely spicy food." The good tactic for someone who is not used to this is sort of diet is just to mix in the spicy food with rice to dilute the taste and to avoid eating the peppers.

Although I can endure the spicy food, I can't say with confidence that it is actually good. In my case, eating it is just so overwhelming that its hard to really notice or care for any differences between the food that is being eaten. The spice is just too much that you are too busy eating through it that you don't get to appreciate or even notice what it taste like.

Indonesian food does have more variety. I have had the exotic sounding meals of cow lung (taste like crackers) frog legs (taste like chicken, usually served with Indo-Chinese food) chicken neck (too much cartilage to taste like anything) and chicken liver (tastes rather dull). The curious thing about Indonesian food is that they have not really considered trying to sell it alongside other food in other locations. You either get it off the street venders or in specialty restaurants, but you never (or at least very rarely) see Indonesian food sold in even a basic food court alongside anything else such as Chinese food. I am not sure whether this is because they don't think there is a market for their own food in a modern setting, if they think it can't be presented in a contemporary way, or if the economics are just not possible to make work. One thing that I do feel is true though however, is that Indonesia still has to work on making its food "very good". There is a sort of universal mediocrity about the way things taste which should not have to be compensated for by going to a Japanese restaurant to have sushi. Thats my opinion anyway.

Moving along to the pirated DVD market. This is a curious thing to look at because it shows how much Jakarta is both trying to be a modern city but also has a long way to go. There are three sorts of malls in Jakarta. The entirely legitimate ones which run a clean business and so sell no pirated DVDs (the few DVDs that they do sell are very expensive for the obvious reason that the pirates have undercut their prices). The ones which have clean and regular business running along side pirates, and the ones which are finances by the very same drug smugglers who may be living a few floors above me in my hotel. (Don't worry, there are diplomatic people here because the hotel has a reputation for very good safety, I am quite secure here) Most expats shop at the first kind but they all know that pirated DVDs are only available at the second kind and so bring the family along to those establishments for the weekend.

At first glance, the pirate DVD market seems to be the answer to all your entertainment needs, however this is misleading. On the one hand, you have vendors with hundreds of DVDs packed together tightly in several large boxes with many in simple plastic wrap to take up as little space as possible. You also have them selling everything for insanely cheap prices, entire seasons of TV shows for only $3 for example. However the problem with this is that you soon realize that there is not that much difference between all the many vendors for two reasons.

The first is that the packaging is all the same, uniform across all the booths in all the malls. This leads me to believe that this is not a domestic operation because (for example) every pack of Season 1 of 24 has the exact same packaging, which strongly suggests that the Jakarta dealers are all getting their stock from a single supplier (Hong Kong was brought up as a possible source though BBC suggests that it may be Thailand). This means that there are not necessarily people in Jakarta who are taking the initiative to figure out what to sell, it seems that just re-sell what everyone else has bought and plans to re-sell.

This leads into the second thing which makes it hard to differentiate between the venders. All their stock tends to be uniform. If you are at one desk and find they have season 1, 2, but not 3 of a series, then that means that no one else will have season 3 (we are assuming that all three seasons have been available on legal DVDs for a while now) everyone in Jakarta seems to rely on the same suppliers so if the suppliers that they all share don't have season 3 then no one in Jakarta will have it.

Whether these are uniquely problems with Jakarta pirated DVD distribution method or actually representative of how the business works is hard for me to accurately and correctly judge. My own inclination is to consider it to be the former rather then the latter. Pirate DVDs are commonplace because the technology to make them is cheap even in these parts of Asia. Whether it is copying DVD content onto disks or downloading them off the internet, the technology required is sort of advanced but not beyond the reach of the sort of middle class societies that are now developing in China. However, in Jakarta's case, I can believe the technological infrastructure problems are hampering the development of the pirates to be able to actually make what they need. The broadband in this country is just not good, even the internet cafes can't handle a five minute youtube video and the wireless in my hotel has to turned on only when requested and even then, it sometimes just does not work. These sort of problems represent a much larger problem of a lack of systems in place to deal with the internet and the 21st century, and I would not be surprised if reasons like this are why every single pirate outlet is dependent on one seller or group of sellers in Hong Kong in order to keep the venders able to sell anything.

My views may be entirely inaccurate, so I would appreciate hearing from people who have spent more time in regions which have pirated DVDs in them, I would be interested in learning if my perception of the situation is not quite correct.

I should add one last point more for my own trivial gratification. Those who have seen the most recent Pirates of the Caribbean movie will know that they spend a lot of time talking about how the person who stabs Davy Jones's heart will have to live forever on the Flying Dutchman. I feel that it would have been an awesome way to end the movie if our heroes stayed on the Dutchman, and that you end the movie with our heroes off the coast of Somalia being hunted down by the US Navy because they have a huge stash of illegal DVDs on board. It would never have happened, but you know it would be more amazing and pertinent to the modern situation.

There have been a few things that need to be updated on since the last email. Much of the last email was spent on Jakarta's failing transportation network. I should point out a few other things I have noticed. Pretty much every car in Jakarta that I have seen seems to be stick-shift with the exception of the ones used by wealthy people. They drive on the same side of the road as in Tokyo and they also seem to actually have similar traffic laws. Like all things in Jakarta this should not be taken to mean that their drivers know all the rules of the road, anyone can get a license here if they can show that they know how to turn the car on (reminds me of Illinois).  But I suspect that were it not for the fact that people don't signal to show whether they are turning left or right, a driver from Japan would actually know how to get around.

Talking about corruption in Jakarta is not a positive subject but it can be amusing. Unlike Chicago, where the corruption helps keep the streets clean of snow and makes sure the garbage is taken away on time, Jakarta is instead stuck with corruption that makes life a problem. The police are essentially unreliable and can be easily bribed. UN agencies and NGO's often complain that it is "the other agency down the hall" which is taking all the government kickbacks. If anyone wants to start a career in investigative journalism, I would start looking into the three nuclear power plants that the Indonesian government wants to have built by 2017, everything seems to be in order and looks legitimate but I am personally more skeptical. Even if all the money is not corrupt I am still not sure that they will know what to do with the nuclear waste other then throw is down the river.

I need to make this email shorter then last time since I have a dinner I need to get to and I apologize in advanced for any and all typos (I really need to get myself an editor for something like this) hope all your holidays are going well, and I hope to get at least a 3rd or possibly 4th update before my time here is done.


P.S. ask me in email format if you want my opinion on the new Transformers movie.

My cooking talents have expanded

I can now prepare things that come in soup cans with great ease and efficiency. It is probably fitting that the stove I am using is probably less safe then any I would have ever encountered in the US (with the exception of the one in the apartment that seemed to be doing Bad Things).

However, I have a new sense of security about living here though, I have just learned that my apartment hotel is owned by someone who is ex-military. That is the reason that the place is used by both UN staff and Drug Dealers, they both feel safe. If the stoves are good enough for them, then they can be good enough for me.

First post

In the Center of Jakarta is the "Patung Selamat Datang", literally "The Welcome Statue." It is not the only Soviet inspired monument in the city (there are at least six), but it is my personal favorite. Built to welcome the athletes of the 1962 Asian games, it is of a design that would make Lenin proud. A large concrete slabs rises out from the center with a small but clearly stable foot print. It then flattens out at the top making a large rectangle shape. It is topped off by two smiling children who have their arms outstretched. This simultaneously opens up the city up to those who still being oriented towards (as they must always be in sculptures like this) the future. The best part of this sculpture is that it is right next to the largest and most popular mall in the city, the Plaza Indonesia which sells designer goods for a price that is actually more expensive then what the rest of the world pays. The mall is also under the ultra-modern Hyatt which has a lobby that is probably two or three stories large due to the mini waterfalls this sort of establishment has to be able to accommodate. Once you understand the dichotomy between the Soviet Sculpture and the Mall you can understand Jakarta. Quite simply, it is simultaneously modern and primitive at the same time.

I have promised several different friends to provide a comprehensive email about Jakarta since I got here and decided that the best thing to do would be to write one piece which can be sent to all of you (High School and College era friends.) A couple friends of mine also have livejournal accounts and at the suggestion of one of them, recommended that I also start a blog while here. My track record with blogs, diaries, moleskins, and other things that require consistent update is rather terrible, but there is no harm in trying for the nth time so here is the livejournal.

Lets get the wikipedia facts about the population out of the way first. Jakarta has 8,792,000 inhabitants so about Nine Million. The city in the US which has a population closest to Jakarta would be New York. Jakarta and New York have similar population sizes and coincidently enough, similar traffic problems. Though I suspect that while New York has its stereotypes of being a city where it is just quicker to walk then to drive or even take a taxi, that unlike Jakarta, this is not because of bad urban planning but rather, the natural result of building a metropolis on an island.

It is folly to refer to Jakarta's "transit system" because saying there is no "system" to refer to, though there is a lack of a system to complain about. Jakarta is essentially two or three very big and important roads that every body has to use. There are some smaller roads that go into the "kampongs" (villages in the city) but those have yet to be discovered and mapped by Google Earth and probably won't be in my lifetime. There is an attempt to build a monorail and it will probably be done by the time I retire. There are also two bus systems in the city. One the legitimate service which gets an entire street lane dedicated to it (the exclusive nature of this lane is probably the only traffic rule which is consistently followed) the other is a rather loose confederation of mini buses which have come out of the cover of the National Geographic, with people paying a rather low cost to ride in a cramped and crowded way. The taxi service can be legitimate provided you ride a taxi from the Blue Bird Group, which is the oldest and most established brand in the city and is of a high standard. The success of this Taxi group with its light blue color scheme means that one has to be careful when hailing a cap to make sure that the cab has not just been painted "UN Peacekeeper Helmut Blue" in order to attract customers. Taxis are actually a very convenient way to travel because the US-Rupiah exchange rate means that a long taxi ride would probably cost around $6 or so (I will explain more about the finances later). So far I have never had to pay the equivalent of $10 in order to get around the city.

Driving, whether in a Taxi or a Car, is a good way to test and see whether the mantra that "Patience is a virtue" is accurate. Most of my co-workers need to think of distance to work not in terms of the physical length of the road, but in terms of how many hours they may get to sleep in the ride on the way over. You can predict when the Messiah is coming (whether for the 1st or 2nd or possibly 3rd time is a nuance I leave to my readers) when everyone in Jakarta had make it to work at the time they are supposed to.

As a result of these many traffic problems, the motorcycle has grown in popularity since its riders can snake between the cars that are stuck in place. Like all things in life, this is not a perfect solution since very often there are about four cars side by side taking up all the space on the lanes designed for three cars. This means that in some cases it may be physically impossible to move between the cars with any method other then walking. Those who have decided to walk between the cars tend to be very specialized in their use of this technique though. They usually camp out near crowded intersections of stop lights and try to sell fruits and Playboy magazines to those who are not moving.

No discussion of Jakarta's transport woes is complete without explaining the "3 in 1" policy. In an effort to reduce congestion the government has decided that certain roads must follow the "3 in 1" rule. This means that every car should have at least three people in them. (One driver and two passengers.) This sort of thing is meant to encourage groups of people to consolidate themselves into a single vehicle so that instead of suffering through a lonely traffic jam, everyone gets to experience it in a long and overly protracted bonding experience. The 3 in 1 rule has also created a rather interesting new way to make money. These people are called "Jockeys" who hang out near the parts of the road which merge into the 3 in 1 section. For a very small fee, they will offer there service to ride in the car with you so that your car can comply with the law. This sort of set up provides for a whole new incentive system for econ majors to drool over. The question which comes to mind is if this is an actual steady source of income for the poverty stricken Indonesian. There is a certain sort of twisted appeal about being paid to be a passenger.

All of these many problems that that of course when it comes to getting around Jakarta that there is always the option of walking, and since so much of what I need is along a major road that functions as a single strip of CBD, it means that the option to walk to the mall, grocery store, or cinema from my apartment-hotel does exist. The main concern here, like in any city not called Tokyo, is personal security. The problems are not mugging or attacking but more pick pocketing the White/Middle Class/Generally Foreing Looking Man since he probably has money in his pocket. I am fortunate not to have dealt with any such person yet though a lot of my co-workers have been through it.

Indonesia, like many countries that go through the labels of "Third World", "Developing Country", "LEDC" or "HRRC" (Human Resource Rich Countries, meaning grossly over populated) has an exchange rate which favors those who don't actually come from the country of origin. Officially, One Dollar buys (at the time of this email) 8,934 rupiahs. (One Euro would buy slightly more, 11,990). Now for the sake of convenience we can say that $1 = 10,000 rupiah (its estimates like these which keep me from being an Econ or Math major). This means that something like a long taxi ride may look ridiculous for the extravagant price of 50,000 rupiahs, but that means five dollars. The curious trick they have mastered is making a lot of things appear cheap (such as meals and transport) but then trick you into buying something that's actually more expensive here then it is in its country of origin (a lot of clothing seems to fall into this category.)

It is curious indeed that despite the rampant poverty, bad education, and lack of infrastructure, that nearly every mall in the country in well stocked, air conditioned, and has clean bathrooms. Social commentators in the US may lament the rise of commercialism and materialism, but it is never really that bad until the only place to go to hang out is one of six or eight different malls. Even though a lot of people in the US are used to the mall as being a hang out place, it is one of several options available to them as opposed to being the only option. Many Jakartans bemoan that fact that there is no where else for them to go and it is rather unfortunate that they can't even have public parks or stadiums or even nice neighborhoods to enjoy.

Geographically, there is one last thing about Jakarta that one needs to be told because you would never realize it by looking at photos. Most, if not every single Indonesian is actually born within eye sight of a giant volcano. The unfortunate thing is that the pollution in the city means that these volcanoes can't be seen. Those who aren't aware of this fact won't notice it unless they are going to be able to frequent a large skyscraper early enough in the morning with enough consistency to be there on one of the three days during the year when the city actually has a clear day. The sight is actually meant to be quite impressive. 

Moving away from the city to focus in on my appartment. My accommodations are actually very good with a very friendly and sociable staff. The apartment hotel is "One of those places" where UN Staff and Swiss Bankers stay. I have only had the pleasure of meeting my first Swiss banker and he is the only person I have the personal expirence of knowing who actually thinks it is wrong that Paris Hilton is in Prison. I have also met people involved in the ILO and in building nuclear power plant. I also hear on good authority that the Arabs in the floors above me use the hotel as a place to store the drugs they smuggle and that important people feel sage here because it is owned by someone who is ex-military. As I said earlier, one of those places.

Despite this, the building is placed in a rather unfortunate position, behind a river. Those of you with experience in parts of South East Asia that are not called Singapore will know that this means that this is actually a large open sewer with enough mosquitoes to spread Malaria to the average UN Refugee camp. I have invested quite a bit on mosquito repellent in all its various forms. I have a spray that I can apply on myself when I go into the great outdoors, a thing I plug into the wall and refill every night with something that keeps them away, and I have a WMD can of insect poison which is my ultimate deterrent against any ant or cockroach colony that may decide to settle down. I have never been a very good backpack traveler and I suspect that Lonely Planet assumes that getting mosquito bits adds to the "authenticity of the experience" and would not be pleased with my efforts.

Living in a Muslim Country is meant to mean several different things, morning prayers, silly laws, headscarves, and Al Jazeera. I will deal with the morning prayers first because frankly they have not done a very good job or either waking me up or annoying me. I suspect this would probably not be the case in other parts of the country but so far, they have been a non-issue in Jakarta.

As for the silly laws involving prohibition on alcohol and gambling, being the infidel foreigners that we are this is actually not a problem at all and I have already broken both of them. (There is a duty free shop in the south which is doing very good business by selling alcohol to foreigners.)

The headscarves for women are pretty common though only two people in my office use them. (Though the percentages of people who wear them are higher in the other companies in the office such as the insurance agencies.) There are some interesting if logical culture shocks such as the department store floors dedicated to Muslim garb, but I am personally more entertained by the McDonalds uniforms for their Muslim workers. The women who choose to get to wear a head scarf which matches their usual McDonalds garb very well, sharing the same color scheme and probably even using similar materials.

Finally, there Al Jazeera English. I have a curios selection of (English) TV channels. Channel 2 is HBO, Channel 3 switches between BBC and CNN (the hotel owner says it is because the tenants want both, I suspect it may be because they have to get a man on the roof to get the dish to point from one direction to the other) and Channel 4 is always Al Jazeera English.

Al Jazeera English like an anti-Israeli version of BBC World (some of you are probably laughing your asses off at such a possibility so I will give you all a minute.) As a decent disclaimer I should provide my opinions about all the various new agencies:

FoxNews: Its dumb entertainment with flashy graphics and pathetically simple news. You don't even have to watch their political shows to realize this, just watch their weather report. Their idea of a weather map is one which forgoes the use of terms like "High Pressure" and "Cold Fronts" and just sticks "Hot" or "Cold" over entire geographic regions. Even listing the actual degrees is too much for them.

CNN Domestic: Its not as bad as Fox, but its kind of bad. A lot of fun but dumb human interest stories and a lot of happy go lucky news casters. But they do have some good programming.

CNN International: Light years ahead of its domestic counterpart. Not the most cerebral network in existence but they do a good job of getting an international perspective.

BBC World: My personal top choice for news. In the US, PBS likes to broadcast half an hour of their news at 6pm and I like to catch it. Their coverage is global, their stories are interesting, and they provide good commentary. Most of their commentators are (surprise surprise) European and so their world view tends to lean towards caution about globalization and a much greater willingness to view most American activity with great suspicion. Still, they provide excellent news, great documentary programs, and they all just sound so gosh darn smart and educated.

Now what is the experience of watching Al Jazeera English? (And I need to clear that this is about Al Jazeera English, not the much more "entertaining" Al Jazeera that you can watch clips of from littlegreenfootballs.com)

The following sketch shows the expected experience:


The reality is in it own way, even more shocking.

If you sit down to watch it you will struck by two things:

  1. They have an abundance of blonde female commentators.
  2. That you have seen all of these news anchors before.

The second point applies to me very strongly because I grew up on CNN and BBC. Since I have left High School and started College (and thus miss out on my daily news digest) it seems that everyone I knew from both networks have gotten a job working for the Dubai based company! Even the BBC anchor who did the technology segment "Click Online" works for them.

This means that Al Jazeera is not staffed by incompetents or even people with no background, these are anchors who have done their homework and know what they are doing. Even those I don't recognize I presume are hired at a very high standard.

This means that when presenting just straight news (such as the G8 Summit) that they present with the same degree of professionalism that you would expect from any one else.

Of course, they have to cover the Middle East. For those who don't follow the news religiously as I do, recently, the Palestinians have been plunged into a civil war with the religious party/paramilitary Hamas taking control of the Gaza Strip while Fatah (the "Moderate" party) has secured its hold in the West Bank. This means that Al Jazeera has been spending a lot of time in the region.

Al Jazeera tends to cover their stories with an element of intensity that is not quite present in the other networks. Watching it really does a god job of convincing you that living in the modern world sucks because it is dangerous and quickly changing for the worse. A lot their coverage is of the humanitarian situation, the difficulty of getting aid into Gaza, Israeli obstruction of aid, Palestinians being depressed that their country had been divided against itself.(Its not that difficult to see where this is heading.) In general, there is a preference for showing humanitarian difficulties or to put it more bluntly, they like to show people being oppressed.

In fact, this sort of general theme of "Weak People vs. Strong People" is probably the most common paradigm that they approach to most of their reporting. A segment about the media in Lebanon will focus on how the Western world ignores the biases of the media outlets which support an anti-syrian viewpoint. A show about Muslims in Sweden will focus on how it is hard for them to integrate in because of the hegemony of both the Swedish culture and of the radicals in the mosques. A documentary about the Starbucks expanding into Cairo will not only stand up for the local Coffee outlets but also bring in anti-globalization spokesmen who bemoan the lack of fair-trade practices and the senseless pursuit of profit.

However, for all that one can find to be critical about at the end of the day they are a legitimate news outlet and they do carry some rather good stories. One of the best I saw was about victims in Sierra Leone who had their limbs chopped off during the civil strife but through determination and will power work to play football (soccer) even most of them only have one leg and a pair of crutches.

 Al Jazeera does avoid guest commentators who might start foaming at the mouth. So while the academic will be saying that Israel is responsible for the trouble in Gaza because they pulled out "in the wrong way" and that the US and International community's support for Fatah is hypocritical because it was Hamas that was the democratically elected government, he will say it with proper grammar. So far, only one of their guests was caught calling America (or possibly Israel) the Great Satan.

At the end of the day, I feel that while the network is not an eye sore to watch, that it is just personally, very difficult to see me using this network as my preferred news source the way that BBC is. While I am sympathetic to their intention to show a more "human" side to most of the worlds problems (and I am not even talking about the Israel-Palestinian conflict here) its not a style that I am necessarily supportive of and it is such an overbearing part of their reporting that one gets the sense that the network is run by activists. The network is a peculiar oddity in my viewing schedule, but at least I can rest easy with the knowledge that my hotel is probably getting it illegally.

That's all I have to say in this email! Here are many things I have not yet covered but will get to in the future. First will be how to buy DVDs for a "very cheap price". I have also avoided talking about work and while I will probably cover that in the future, those of you who are seriously considering a career in advertising should send me personal emails since not everyone will be interested in how Project Management, Account Management, and Design Teams have to work together to make a Happy Meal Menu. I also will be doing some more Jakarta sight seeing in the near future as well. I will also be talking about the local food but that needs a bit more time before I can write something remotely authoritative about it, because at the moment I can't say anything more then "It is really spicy."