Tuesday 6 April 2010

Lassoing the stars from the gutter - the unraveling of Jakarta

Jakarta is the lover I picked up in a club in one of those crooked back alleys with hidden nooks and grimy doors that open into dark rooms full of dodgy characters with everywhere eyes. Jakarta and I did tequila shots together and woke up with pasty mouths and sketchy night recollections. She is the lover I’m ashamed of, the one I’m most seduced by, the one I hate the most and love the most. She’s the one I keep in secret, meeting in shadowy laneways along broken bricked footpaths, in the gutter next to sewers, and sometimes - when we’re feeling decadent and daring - in the looming shiny malls, where we watch each other’s reflections in the windows of shops containing items we can never dream of affording.

My lover will often flash about millions of Rupiah but the gifts remain undelivered.

My parents have expressed interest in coming to visit me in Jakarta and I’ve coaxed them down from their excitement, managing their expectations and making excuses for my lover.

“But you won’t like Jakarta,” I say pleadingly, “I mean, I don’t mind living here, but I don’t even know what you would dohere…”

The divide is so great that I can’t even imagine my parents and my new secret lover in the same room together.

“But it’s your home, they respond patiently. “We want to know what your life is like.”

What they really mean is: “We want to know who you’re spending all your time with, and whether we approve.”

“Maybe I can meet you somewhere else?” I suggest hopefully, shamed by my own shame but still trying to change their minds. I make a few half-hearted suggestions - like sunshiny Bali, or straight footpathed Singapore - somewhere that’s a little morehusbandly material??

Everyone has a lover like Jakarta at least once in their lives: the lover nobody else understands. You know the one I’m talking about, because you’ve had one too. Your parents don’t approve, your friends wonder why you keep going back, and everyone tells you over and over that you’re just too good for it.

But you’ll hear none of it! You’re too far in it. Your lover seduces you with grand plans and glances of greatness amid the squalor. (My lover, Jakarta, is a shameless slut and seduces many this way – it’s famous for bringing the young and ambitious from all over the Indonesian archipelago to its heaving bosom on the promise of unimagined richness). This lover beckons you close and with an arm around your shoulders and says - LOOK! Look up through the smog and see the stars! We can lasso them together; I can show you how – do you trust me? No one knows what really goes on between lovers, and who could understand the sacred bond shared between two souls who plot to capture the stars together?

The unravelling of Jakarta is a forever entertaining journey. This city always feels as if she’s holding back beauty; always holding the promise of more – if only I love her a little more! If only I make her feel secure that I won’t leave her, then she will stop running around and showing her beauty to others (she’s always ugliest with me). She only wants me to believe in her!

And I do believe, I really do… this particular quest for beauty is just taking a little longer than I thought.

Next time my parents ask if they can come visit Jakarta, I just might say yes…. Perhaps the four of us can sit in the gutter together with the sewer stench in our nostrils, and my lover can show us all how to lasso the stars.  

Wednesday 24 February 2010

HOLY SMOKE! How scary is it when advertising works?

The other week a man blew his mouth out sucking back on a kretek cigarette while riding his motorbike along a Jakarta highway. Apparently there were explosives in the cigarette he was smoking, although the cigarette company seemed insufficiently intrigued by the event to investigate. Instead, the man was given compensation equivalent to $86 per tooth lost.

This horrifying story made me want to do two things, in this order:
1. Post the story to my Facebook profile as a warning and deterrent to my friends who smoke.
2. Go out and buy a packet of cigarettes, take them to the roof of my 30 floor apartment building, and look out over Jakarta whilst smoking - secretly, slowly and deliberately.

I have no idea what this says about me. Something odd I imagine.

(I should note at this point that I am a non-smoker and I haven't smoked a cigarette since I was about 16).

As it happened, I didn’t do either of those things. (Belum). But writing this post is the equivalent of posting it to my Facebook profile as a warning to my friends. And as for the 2nd point... well....

Living in Indonesia makes me want to smoke. Like, more so than when it was daring and super cool - when I was 14 in a damp alley behind Angel Place with the cool girls from school.

I am, of course, one of those people on whom advertising completely and utterly works.

Imagine for a moment you are an alien and you come to Indonesia for just one day to learn about Indonesians. For this task, however, you are only allowed to observe the advertising Indonesians consume. At the end of your day in this country, wherever you happened to land on this lovely archipelago, you would board your spaceship and shoot off through the atmosphere to find your friends and tell them that in Indonesia:
1. Everyone has Sunsilk shiny hair,
2. Everyone has skin that wants to be white
3. Everyone owns very fancy communications devices and maintains constant contact with everyone they have ever met.
4. Oh, and they all smoke magical things that make them incredibly cool and talented.

I was recently on a boat in the middle of the jungle, sitting around with some awesome girls who are all cool in a way that you can’t conceive of being at the age of 14. One of them – who is already cool because she knows the names of DJs in an entirely unpretenscious way – lit up a cigarette and flicked her head back, pouted her lips and sent a stream of smoke out over the river. I was transfixed. I wanted so badly to be her. And not even in a ‘smoking is cool’ kind of way. But rather a ‘smoking seems like the natural thing to do right now’ kind of way. Because in Indonesia, smoking is the natural thing to do all the time. Advertising reassures you at every turn. Just next to you in your traffic jam, there is a series of flags on which a particularly talented and gorgeous man with lovely biceps does the following things:
1. Hangs off the side of a cliff showing off his enak (delicious) calf muscles.
2. Canoes down river rapids looking determined and robust and showing off his forearms (also quite enak).
3. Other things that I can't specifically remember but I do remember they involve chiselled muscles and the sort of physical activity that you can't do with a cigarette in your hand (and you probably won't have the lung capacity to do if you're much of a smoker).  

I’m convinced this kind of messaging takes some time to sink in to the point where it changes the way you think and in turn the way you behave; as it has taken almost a year for cigarette advertising to have this effect on me. Up until recently, I barely noticed the ads except to scoff at how ridiculous they were. Then it all changed in a frighteningly subliminal way. I noticed it most markedly a few weeks ago, around the time of the exploding cigarette.

On my walk home from work, I cross a massive bridge over a wide lumbering sewer stretching to the horizon. Every day, slowly, the light of the day recoils and gets caught in the pollution hanging in the air, throwing firecrackers of red and purple and yellow and hot pink across the debris-filled water. Sometimes I stop and watch. There is a giant billboard just over the other side of the bridge, which very recently changed its advertisement. I have no idea what it was before, but now it is the most effective piece of advertising I have seen in some time (certainly for me). It’s a stylised image of a skateboard ramp that seems to have been drawn with one of those sparklers you played with on fireworks night when you were a kid – drawing swooping arcs of fiery light in the air, racing against the disappearing light to finish writing your name before the beginning of it burned out. In the ad, there are two skaters at either end of the sparkly ramp, and the one on the right is actually shooting clear of the billboard itself – so he’s suspended in the Jakarta skyline, perched next to the logo of the Four Seasons Hotel. In the middle of the ramp, the advertising slogan glows incandescent like the end of a sucked-on cigarette - and invites you to "Go Ahead."  It's a directive - nudging you along like the 15-year-old cool kid behind the shelter sheds, offering you a light. Go ahead! It encourages your instincts to follow everyone around you - to join the legions of supporters whose fingers lace around flaring sticks everywhere you look. Go ahead!

At sunset, the windows of apartments and office buildings surrounding the billboard come to life (hidupkan) with the reflected colours of the disappearing sunlight, which bounces off the skate-ramp. Suddenly the space between the sewer and the sky gleams with dazzling possibility. The ad placement is so perfect and alluringly aspirational I want to cheer and boo at the same time.... whilst blowing smoke-rings out over the disgusting rubbish-filled waterway gurgling below the bridge under my feet. It is only in writing this that I realise there is no cigarette represented anywhere on the billboard, yet somehow I know the ad is for cigarettes and I want one. Now.

(Obviously, I am deliberately not addressing the issue of cigarette advertising from a health perspective, or a – oh that’s so shocking, how dare they still advertise like that - kind of way. Rather, I’m interested in it from a bloody hell, cigarette advertising actually seems to work perspective. And just how scary that concept is).

So this little note is just a heads up that it won’t happen overnight, but it will happen. Advertising works.

Holy smoke!


By the way, if you don’t believe me about the exploding cigarette, check this out: http://www.thejakartaglobe.com/home/exploding-cigarette-earns-hurt-indonesian-rp-5-million/356201

Also: if you're interested in the subjects of cigarette advertising in Indonesia, have a look at this: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/8/1/85.extract. You need to sign in to read the full text, but you can register for a free trial.
oh, and I'll take a photo of the ad soon and post it.

Friday 29 January 2010

Missing: My Favourite Pak. Last seen searching for a husband for me. If found, please return to Tower 14.

(Before the disappearance, this post was titled Midnight Introductions by My Favourite Pak).

*Pak: short for “Bapak,” meaning Sir. Literally means father; commonly used as a polite greeting for men.

Something quite upsetting has happened. My favourite Pak has disappeared. There’s a possibility he’s found someone else. He could, at this very moment, be opening someone else’s door.

The thought of this drives into my ribs.

I wonder whether he still thinks of me. I remember when we were happy.

Our apartment building has a rotating roster of doormen and women but he was my standout favourite. We developed a fondness and I always loved it when he saw me coming and bounded out of the door in his enthusiasm to open it and shake my hand. In a new country where home has little of the affection with which it is usually associated, there’s something to be said for someone you barely know opening the door for you and making it clear they’re really glad you’re home safe.

“Miss Alison, Miss Alison!!” he would call, and so would begin another bewildering but affectionate exchange between us with each of us striving to understand the other - me trying desperately to understand his Indonesian and him trying valiantly not to embarrass me by making it clear my Indonesian is not even remotely understandable.

Whenever he saw me with a suitcase he asked me how long I would be gone for and told me in an entirely unsleazy way that he’d miss me. I didn’t care if it was true because the way he greeted me on my return made me believe it was, and that was enough for me.

We shared milestones together: on voting day he proudly wielded his purple-dyed index finger and I congratulated his pride in his new democracy. After the bombings he told me hati hati and I listened. When I limped in with a fractured kneecap his eyebrows bunched as he listened to my bumbling explanation of my clumsiness (I didn’t mention the vodka). When our air-conditioning broke and I was almost delirious with the fever of a parasite waging wars in my digestive system, he sat me down in front of the lobby air conditioner and organised for our apartment AC to be fixed immediately (anyone who has lived in Indonesia and tried to get anything fixed, let alone quickly, will know what a feat of affection this is).

Sometimes if I was dressed up he smiled and with his eyes in the sky he said, “Miss Alison! Cantik!” (beautiful). In these unsexy Jakarta days, and particularly those following the Are you Pregnant Incident with the Star Mart Man^, Pak was a little ray of self-esteem sunshine.

So yeah, I really liked him.

But he wasn’t just a friendly door-opener, as I was to discover a few months into my time of living in his building.

One day my male flatmate Heartbreaker came home and through hysterical laughter told me he had just finished being lectured by My Favourite Pak. Apparently my gallant defender (Pak) had seen Heartbreaker with another girl and had cornered him in the lobby the next time he saw him. It is extremely uncommon for two people of the opposite sex to share a roof unless they are married or related, and my Pak had obviously assumed Heartbreaker and I were a couple. We were not. Pak wanted to know what kind of a man would do the wrong thing by His Favourite Tenant (I’m pretty sure this is what he called me behind my back). He wasn’t going to continue opening the door for some young blue-eyed Heartbreaker who was fooling around on me. Straining to take the allegations seriously, my flatmate spent some time explaining that he and I were just friends – really! - and the matter was resolved with a wary-eyed handshake.

In the weeks following this exchange, life began to get interesting in the Lobby of Tower 14.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in Indonesia must be in want of a husband. In want of a husband quite urgently, actually.

It is an odd thing being a single woman in Indonesia. Particularly a single white woman, away from her home, her family, and seemingly oblivious to the fact she has become a rather horrendous freak of nature – single and quite utterly independent (!!) I have had taxi drivers swivel backwards to look at me, appalled, whilst driving at speed on tollways – simply because I have answered the inevitable question honestly and told them that actually, I’m not sudah menikah (already married) at my ripe old age. For a while I followed the advice of other similarly unattached white girls, and pretended to be married with a husband waiting at home. But I soon discovered it’s much more entertaining to tell the truth and watch the worlds collide.

So, for my Pak, the revelation that I was indeed quite single and alone in this great big city, was a problem which he plotted to single-handedly solve.

The weekend following my Pak’s conversation with Heartbreaker, I arrived home after a Saturday night out to be greeted by my Pak. Now, we had some confusing conversations in our time, but the ones where I was slightly tipsy were by far the most entertaining. On this occasion, Pak was extra-specially excited to see me. I soon found out why.

Miss Alison, maybe you would like to meet my friend?

And in moments I was involved in an exceedingly awkward conversation with Pak’s ‘friend’ from Sumatra, who had mysteriously materialised out of nowhere. It’s times like these the language barrier can be really helpful. Just pretend you don’t know what’s going on, look utterly confused and call the bloody lift, quickly.

Another episode followed - one morning I returned from a run and Pak looked into my hideous sweaty face and told me excitedly that he something for me. Wait wait, Miss Alison, he said, and rushed behind the reception desk to pull out a piece of paper. He pressed it into my sweat-slicked hands and I read the scrawled name and number. His face was almost bursting with hopefulness and he said something along the lines of: That’s the number of another friend of mine. See, I’ve fixed you! There’s no need to be so ridiculously alone anymore! I’ve found you a man! You can make sense again! (It was in Indonesian, so I’m paraphrasing). Pak’s enthusiasm was so genuine I found myself nodding and agreeing that yes, perhaps I would give this mystery scrawled name on the paper a call.

(I did not).

It’s been a while since I had any midnight introductions by my Pak. Soon after these episodes he disappeared, presumably to the lobby of another apartment building. Perhaps he gave up on me. Perhaps he’s gone to marry-off another, more willing, single woman. I did appreciate his good intentions.

So this is a call out for anyone who might have seen my Pak (those of you in this 18 tower ghetto, perhaps one of you is having your door opened by him as we speak! Filthy ghetto hussies). Please let me know if he’s spotted. He looks a bit like a grown-up Indonesian version of Bart Simpson. Beaming smile. Bounding door-opening abilities. Last seen searching for a husband for me.

If found, please return to Tower 14. He’s the man who made my Jakarta apartment feel like home and I want him to wave me off one last time.

Tuesday 26 January 2010

Hello mister! On the hustle in London and Jakarta - street selling for beginners

Once, in another life, I chased posh Londoners down the King's Road in Chelsea and asked them where they got their hair done. Then, I quickly became their best friend and convinced them to give me their credit card, or cash, or write me a cheque... and in return I would give them a piece of cardboard which entitled them to hair and beauty treatments at a salon of which they had never heard. I could usually complete this process in a matter of minutes. The job was 100% commission based so it was easy to be motivated.

I knocked on doors, I shouted across streets, I tapped on shoulders, I trotted up to groups of women waiting at the lights. Sometimes I intercepted them as they rushed to catch the tube to get to their morning meetings. Often I raised a little corner of my mouth and made my voice high and fizzy with giggles, and sold to men for their girlfriends and wives and daughters and mothers. In my finest hour I sold a series of 4 visits for a hair salon to a bald man. For himself.

I did this job in the thin dark cold of the sunless English winter; on days when the light would travel from very far off and tentatively peek over the city, on and off, for just a few hours.

Perhaps you know something about Londoners in the winter; perhaps you know that it is a time when their faces become hardened and grey and their voices become thin with impatience and shivers.

Londoners in the winter mostly do not like having a strange Australian girl of uncertain hair colour (it was a time of hair experimentation) running up to them and asking them questions about their hair as a ruse to begin her sales pitch.

Once, I was detained and searched by police after slipping into a law firm on the coattails of one of its employees, who held the back door open for me as he returned to work after a cigarette break. I was in the middle of pitching my sales spiel to one of the senior lawyers (who I might say, was very interested) when someone called security. I was made to feel very special: they called a female police officer especially for me. She arrived and snapped on a plastic glove. I lifted a brow and emptied my pockets, hoping for the best.

Once, I made the equivalent of 700 Australian dollars in a single day of this foolishness.

Once, I did this job with pink hair and bad skin. (This job of making people give me money because they believed I knew best how to make them beautiful). Let me add that I am not one of those cool funky types who wears her hair pink because it looks cool. I was more the colour-gone-wrong type of orangey-pink disaster. However, with pink hair, I still sold.

I tell you all this by way of saying that I know a thing or two about how to sell. And by way of explaining why I now totally get why things are the way they are on the streets of Jakarta.

It is one of the most inspirational and maddening things about living in this city: the entrepreneurial spirit of the people who have made this place their home. In Jakarta, everyone is on the hustle.

Arriving into the airport, you’re greeted by a cacophony of airport tycoons – everyone has what you need, in fact they have what you didn’t even realise you needed (but you do, you really do!)

Every morning leaving your apartment into the embracing heat of the day, you are a consumer immediately. Oooojeeeeeek croak the motorcycle taxi men from across the street as you walk past, looking down. If you accidentally look up, they are already swinging legs over motorbikes and chugging over to you. And when you do want to catch a motorbike, you need only to raise your index finger and there is one by your side by the time you’ve dropped your arm. On the streets of Jakarta, things happen quickly.

As a fellow hawker, I know what they’re playing at. I recognise this behaviour as one of the golden rules of selling: always assume the sale. Whether you’re selling a bald man a haircut, or offering a ride to someone who has just stepped out of a taxi – you just need to assume that your customer wants and needs what you’ve got, and they will in turn assume that they want it too. (I must want this, it seems ridiculous not to want it. Why would I walk to the end of this street when I could get on the back of a motorbike?).

But it’s all sales. Jakarta hawkers know their rules for sales success and this one ties in with another important one – “work your numbers” - ask as many people as you possibly can and eventually someone will say yes. This selling tool is in full use among Jakarta’s modes of transport, where a strange “opt-out” system has been developed. In most cities of the world, you must seek out taxis – and they are often elusive and annoyingly stand-offish (exhibit A: Kings Cross in Sydney at about 3am, changeover time). This is not at all the case in Jakarta. In Jakarta you spend your days refusing the services of all kinds of modes of transport – taxis, ojeks (motorbike taxis), bejajs (tuk tuks), anggots and mikrolets (combi-vans). You feel as though someone needs to sit all these drivers down and say – “hey, you know what might make a bit more sense? Instead of you always asking me if I need you, perhaps we could do it the other way around and I can hail you when I need you... as opposed to un-hailing you, constantly, all day and every day.”

Not to mentioned the rehash and double your cash (upsell!) – if you’ve sold one, sell more. You need 2 or three sarongs, 5 or 10 DVDs. You do, don’t you?

The untiring and entrepreneurial spirit of Indonesians, if particularly evident in the Jakarta, is found all over the country. If there is a need here, there is a bustling queue of people ready to service it. Often the need aspect of this is faint. But sometimes it’s nice to know you’re going in the right direction down a one way street, because there’s a 12-year-old in a threadbare t-shirt collecting Rupiah for the service of pointing you in the direction of traffic (the direction in which you’re already headed). What would happen if these people weren’t there?! Mayhem surely. It’s like a pat on the back – yep, just keep going, you’re going the right way! If only we could have this sort of reassurance in everyday life.

These are some of the best, most ambitious sales people I’ve ever come across. Poverty exists in a flurry of activity. Markets brim with people toiling away – cutting the heads off still flip-flopping lele (catfish), packing bright yellow fish into little banana tree bark compartments like tiny little coffins, shelling and shredding coconuts; always always busy hands. People are not poor because they’re lazy. Try pushing around a cart of food and cooking materials all day and all night and finding the energy to call out your sales spiel; or riding a bike whilst balancing gas cylinders or great tubs of water; or balancing your wares over your shoulders and bounce-jogging them around the city in your own outdoor-market selling space. It is hard to conceive of how exhausting this work must be.

I became a street hawker in London because I had holes in my shoes and was living off cornflakes and hiding from my friend’s landlord so I could sleep on his couch. I thought that was motivation enough. But imagine leaving your family behind in your village and moving to Jakarta so you can earn a tiny bit of money to send back home ... for so many people, it’s a way of life.

Once, I used to wonder whether all the selling would ever stop – the croaking sales calls, the beeping horns, the irritating repetitive ice cream song, the ‘hello misters’ ... always, everywhere, someone is calling and asking and wanting from you.

And then I remembered with a flashback to the streets of London ... that was me, once.

* Keen readers may recognise that at the beginning and end of this post I’ve borrowed the style of Morris Gleitzman’s lovely and awfully sad book “Once.” Read it. Read it privately, unless you’re a fan of sobbing in public.

Thursday 7 January 2010

A year above uncertain ground - resolutions, regulators and failing to establish neutral buoyancy

2009 began and ended in the ocean. It began on a beach in Rio and ended in the sea off a little island in Indonesia. In Rio I wore white for peace, and as the world took its first few breaths of 2009, I made a wish and threw flowers into the water for Iemanja, the Goddess of the Sea. I remember wishing, and I remember throwing the flowers so that Iemanja would grant me her blessings in return. But I have no idea what I wished for. It’s funny how you can ask for things and then you can’t even remember whether you were given them or not.

2010 began with a swim off a little island in Indonesia that you can walk all the way around. In the water with a Bintang in hand, I wore a black bikini, or perhaps it was the one with red polka dots, I’m not sure... the colour is only important to the extent that it wasn’t green. Indonesia also has a goddess of the sea - Nyai Loro Kidul - and green is her colour. People who dare to wear green risk being dragged under the surface and out to sea, never to be seen again. And that was not the new beginning I was after.

So here we are, safe from sea goddesses, a few days into a fresh-smelling year. New beginnings are a good time to be hopeful and ambitious. To giggle at how ridiculously you’ve behaved and to hope you can keep it going for another year. To seize on opportunities to be well and truly, completely and heart-fully, free of old spent love. To be self indulgent and think about all the things that have happened, and try to establish a few things you may have learnt.

The past year has been one of extremes. I’ve lived in a country where the air is always either slippery with heat or dry with artificially conditioned air; where the world is either blaringly loud or eerily quiet; where spaces are either packed with people and rubbish or entirely empty but for the resounding prayers; where the sky is either resolutely dry or entirely unhinged. And when it’s raining then it’s pouring.

This year a lot of things happened under the pelting of hard-surfaced raindrops, and some of them were chest-leapingly wonderful.

This year I learnt that actions of affection, when made truthfully, feel like you’re operating the machinery of life.

This year I discovered new sweat glands and gave them a very good work out.

This year I felt the floor shift and loosen beneath my feet and I looked out of my 28th floor apartment to watch the Jakarta skyline move pendulously from side to side. This year I learnt what you’re meant to do when the tectonic plates misbehave.

This year a friend - an old friend whose path had since separated from mine, a lovely friend with the most simple, happiness-hunting intentions – passed away. He passed away unexpectedly, very far away, in a manner that was quiet and undramatic. With distance, I felt the sadness of this in a pure sort of way. This year I learnt how easy it is to let people drift in and out of your life without consciously choosing to set them free or hitch them tighter. One of my resolutions is to deliberately choose the people who surround me – to leave some people in 2009 and the years preceding it, and to draw others in tighter, lashed near me as we head into 2010 and beyond.

This year, fittingly, I breathed underwater for the very first time. I learnt to dive just days after the Jakarta bombings and I remember feeling like I had found a trapdoor to another dimension. And I remember how freeing that was.

I wrote this about what I found: diving is like descending into a magic eye picture; as you slowly slide under the surface, the awkward weight of the equipment fades away and the chaos of the earth-bound world is slowly squeezed out. The pressure of the water envelopes you and the atmosphere thickens into a thrilling embrace. You’re suspended around layers and layers of fish- little darts of colour rushing and wallowing, chasing and nipping each other, shooting spurts of yellow shit behind them. Everywhere you look there are great civilisations under the sea, factories of activity, fish coming and going, currents pushing and pulling like invisible conveyor belts, and all around there are the sounds of little crunches and pings as coral cracks and fish munch. There are caverns and outcrops and on the bottom of the sea sit lavender mounds of enormous clams and spiky yellow cactus plants. There are giant sea turtles and cuttlefish and tiny, delicate dancing shrimp. You swim alongside your dive-master and she points urgently behind you - directly behind you – so you swing around and *squeal* into your regulator at the sight of a dugong moving determinedly through the blue abyss beyond, its square face nudging the currents. You clap your hands at the sight of an eagle ray swooping above you, and emit little yelps of glee at being caught in a storm of multicoloured fish, little flecks of life darting and drifting in every direction in suspended fish schools, with rebel castaways zooming past your ears and through your legs.

It’s all you can do to keep breathing (because if you don’t your head will explode, or something like that – I learnt it in the course). You just keep drawing the enriched air in and out with excited gasps and hope that you never have to re-enter the world above - the only evidence of which is the shafts of shifting light searching for the bottom of the earth. You’ll try (and mostly fail) to establish neutral buoyancy – a beautiful state where you are perfectly weighted so can stay still in the sea and move without fuss from one place to another. Neutral buoyancy involves weights around your waist and then filling your jacket with just the right amount of air... you can even move from place to place simply by the intake and exhalation of oxygen from your tank – filling your lungs will make you rise, and then letting it out will make you lower. It's a delicious prospect. You’ll watch others do this with impeccable precision while you flail about ridiculously, shooting up and down, high and low. It should not surprise you in the least that you have trouble establishing and maintaining neutral buoyancy.

I remember when I dived for the first time, an hour underwater passed in moments. When we returned to the surface it seemed like madness to re-enter this world, with all its gravity-entrapped bumblings and unpredictable, awful possibilities. On the surface, with my inflated jacket bobbing me afloat and another dimension stretching deep below my flippers, I felt all the weight of my equipment become real again. I felt the urge to follow that glinting light - past the teeming fish families in their underwater villages - deep into the caverns of the earth.

This year I learnt that sometimes life is hard above an uncertain ground.

A few days ago I did my first dive of the decade and this time it felt different. I breached the sea surface, swelled my floatation jacket and leaned back to turn my face to a friendly shining sky, arching over a renewed world.

Later, the clouds would bunch and pick up the yellow of another ending day and then settle over the ancient volcanoes that carved out the landscape so many lifetimes ago ... and there I was, floating in the middle of it all after an hour of breathing underwater.

This year I learnt that we live in a world of wonderful possibility.

And for 2010, I wish the most wonderful things for all the amazing people in my life, who I’ve just hitched a little tighter.


The Brazilian author, Jorge Amado, wrote:

The ocean is large, the sea is a road without end, waters make up more than half the world, they are three-quarters of it, and all that belongs to Iemanjá. There she combs her hair (beautiful slave girls come with combs of silver and ivory), hears the prayers of the women of the sea, unleashes storms, chooses the men she is to take on the bottomless journey to the depths of the sea. And it is here that her feast takes place. Because the night of the feast of Iemanjá is a thing of beauty. On those nights the sea is of a color between blue and green, the moon is always in the sky, the stars accompany the lanterns on the sloops, Iemanjá slowly spreads her hair out toward the sea and there is nothing in the world as beautiful (sailors on big ships that travel all over always say) than the color that emerges from the mingling of Iemanjá's hair with the sea.

Monday 14 December 2009

A letter to my lover – the shadow play of half-won affection

Sewer number 552
behind the mall
just next to the warungs
in the shadow of some great erection of a monument
to some dictator
or perhaps just To Hope
just down the road from that shiny international hotel
next to the kampong with the barefoot kids
and the hollowed out little men
wearing SBY t-shirts with blue sleeves.

Under the yellow-orange light of the almost-dark
- because it never gets dark here, never -
there lies my Jakarta.

A nondescript afternoon during the quiet of Ramadan 2009, looking out over Bundaran HI with its rigidly hopeful figures symbolising the optimism of tomorrow.

To my Jakarta,

I’m not sure if I ever told you. But I almost left you. A few months back I was offered a job living in Bali and travelling to eco-lodges in some of the most beautiful places in this country – places that are easy to love. When I was offered that job my mind whirred with new possibility. I was so excited I felt like my skin might rupture and erupt with starbursts; I was so charged with hope and opportunity.

My job would have been to inspire people to visit these incredible places, to help them reconnect with what drives them, with what feeds their souls. After living in Jakarta for some months, I could appreciate how important it was to escape to a naturally beautiful place – to appreciate the wondrousness of the world and remember why life is such a gift. I remember digging my fingers into my thighs and emitting a little screech with my eyes shut tight. It was all a little too exciting. I even had to do a couple of handstands to get rid of some excess excitement. Yep, it was like New Love.

And then, there was you. I felt that I had given you a fair go to show yourself to me and it appeared that we were not really hitting it off, and that most likely we would never really hit it off. Every day you muffle my skin with your smog and your heat and trip me up with your broken pavements. You gave me an eye-ulcer, blurring your beauty; you fractured my kneecap so I had to hobble across you, you infested my digestive tract with warring bacteria and parasites and then pumped me full of antibiotics that made me feel that I was dying and eating nails at the same time - but somehow didn’t kill the nuclear-resistant amoeba.

I know you’re trying to tell me I’m not made for this place; that I’m too fragile to exist here. And you’re looking to poison me from the inside out. Last night my stomach warped and bubbled and I threw up black sludge that looked like the rancid stuff that pumps through your sewer canals - your lifeblood, carrying whispers of corruption and unmet expectations across the skin of your city. Well, it’s not my life-blood. My body thinks that stuff is poison and to be honest, I’m inclined to agree. Do you think you’re fooling anyone, pumping poison through your veins every day and pretending it is blood? After a while people can tell poison from blood and they want the real thing.

Sometimes it’s hard to love you. Sometimes I need tequila shots just to get a laugh out of you.

But. We had our moments. Like that time when I was walking home with my idealism dribbling in my wake and I looked up and you’d made the moon full and bright and yellow, and a breeze skipped up my spine and with Feist in my ears you gave me goose-bumps into the thick night. I thought of you fondly then. And that time I was really sick and just needed to get home, and you opened up the magical skyways of the city and flew me home with no macet at all. And all the times when one of your people – one of the 18 million beating hearts throbbing within you – has reached across the chasm between us and handed me a little piece of understanding, with a gaze or a conversation or a brush of fingertips.

I want you to know that I notice. Every time you rustle your skirts and show me a bit of beauty, I’m watching.

But I still want more. I want that feeling of lacing my fingers into yours in the middle of the night and feeling the squeeze around my knuckles which says yes, I’m here. I want to fall asleep with the knowledge that when I wake up your beating heart will be within reach of my fingertips. All this I can see in shadows, like the ghostly apparitions of a wayang puppet show. Just beyond my reach, on the other side beneath your cloaks, where other people make the shadow-play of our almost love story. I’m wondering if you’ll ever make it real. I want it to be and I’m willing to suspend disbelief to make it so.

So here we are. I gave up that job in Bali to be with you. And now we’ve got less than 3 months left together and already I’m feeling the nostalgia of losing you. I look out into the glowing clenched-fist night and feel a swell of clarity. I feel like I’m finally starting to understand you, and I can see your fingers unfurling so I know you feel the same. I like to think of you as one of those songs that I didn’t like at first but then I kept hearing it and eventually I fell in love with it, because it’s not as cheap and easy as a pop song. People ask me if I think we can work it out and I say ... maybe. Clear-eyed Sydney calls me home and makes so much sense, like the boy with the clean fingernails and a full time job. And of course Sydney will win in the end.

But I’ll always look for you, blazing and darkening in shadow movements behind the screen. I’ll sit and watch untiringly through the night like Indonesians do; everyone else will be on the side where they can watch the skilful puppet master and the intricately designed puppets, with the gamelan orchestra creating its nightmarish soundtracks. I’ll be alone on the other side of the screen, watching the silhouettes shifting and stirring and embracing and quivering as they love, fight and betray their way through life. And I’ll make it all real with my belief.

We’re the lucky ones, because we know ahead of time that we are ending; we can say everything we’ve always wanted to say. So let’s just enjoy the time we have left together. I know you’re not big on beginnings and endings (more on that later), but I am – so try to think of something meaningful for our farewell.

Love, (that’s right- love, don’t be malu)
Ali xx

Thursday 10 December 2009

Peering across the divide - a few little notes on faith

I’ve wanted to write about faith since I moved in Indonesia. But finding words to talk about faith is difficult and feels fraudulent, like saying I love you just because someone else says it and you want it to be true.

It’s necessary to think about faith in order to understand this country; without religion, life here is confronting and confounding. Faith is everywhere, operating in tandem with every life experience, informing so much of everything that happens. Every day, no matter where you are, you can hear the sound of a nation of believers as they are called to pray. The faith of this country wakes you up in the morning with devoted humming that creeps through the crevices of your apartment.

Five things I have learnt about faith, from the faithful and the faithless:

1. Faith needs nothing earthly. Mosques are great empty spaces with shiny marble surfaces, where the faithful join together to bounce their prayers off the walls and hear them back again. Here, the faithful don’t require anything to help them believe. Their belief is bottomless and nebulous in its expansiveness; but hard-surfaced in its strength.

2. Faith is about being grateful and expressing hope and asking for help and saying you’re sorry. These are the things that people have trouble doing every day of their lives.

3. Faith finds meaning in the things that happen to you and gives reasons for the moments that bring joy or distress and provides comfort when the world is loud and unhearing. These are the things that people want from the moment they’re born.

4. Faith requires trust in the intangible, belief in the unfathomable and loyalty to something that is everywhere and nowhere. These are the struggles of life and have nothing and everything to do with a God or Gods. These things are hard for everyone, every moment, every day, no matter where they live or who they love or what they believe.

5. Sometimes it’s sad not to believe, but you can’t just choose to have faith. Sometimes it’s just too difficult to believe in things that you can’t hold in your fists or prove with facts.

I recently edited a report for the Indonesian Commission on Violence Against Women, about horrific human rights abuses against women in May 1998, when riots raged across Jakarta and other cities of Indonesia. Amid the chaos, mass rapes and other appallingly violent acts were carried out, predominantly against Chinese Indonesian women.

Editing the report was excruciating not just because of its content but also because it was so poorly translated – words had been changed from Indonesian into muddled English that tripped over itself often nonsensically. Every so often while editing the report I came across an indecipherable paragraph of translated English, and would have to refer back to the original text in Indonesian. Using dictionaries and online translation tools I constructed paragraphs – bundling words together like hellish building blocks to form awful sentences. Finally emerging with meaningful sentences like: the research indicated that mass rapes were conducted almost simultaneously, in a manner that was organised and widespread across a number of different riot locations. Going over and over the translation and hoping that I somehow got it wrong.

Almost at the end of the editing, I was finally presented with a gift. So Indonesian this is: to receive a small piece of clarity and beauty at the end of a dismal journey.

The final appendix of the report: the prayers. It was a strange thing, after wading through the report’s jumble of lost meanings, to find that suddenly everything makes sense in verses of prayer. Reading the lines of the prayers was like discovering the code for understanding the report – there it was tucked away at the back, only to be found by those who persevere to the end. This elusiveness of meaning is so typical of Indonesia.

It’s a simple truth: you will never understand anything about this pocket of the world until you listen to its people pray. In this land where everyone believes in something, it makes no sense to attempt to comprehend it without grasping the way its people believe.

In prayer, the translated phrases about May 1998 are achingly poetic.

The prayers speak of immaculate flesh with blood gushing all over; of sacred wombs, torn and tattered; of lives, dying and exhausted; of brutal, foul grips of anonymous villains. The prayers speak of tears that wither; they appeal for help to show truth as truth, and to give strength to Indonesia’s leaders who must scale their way righteously. The prayers ask that the souls of their loved ones may rest in Your Most Consoling Gardens.

And then, making the most sense of all:

We could not sigh our pains to anyone but You
... this misery is beyond our possibility

Indonesia is a collection of thousands of islands with lots of dark corners where unspeakable things are often left unspoken, where issues that might cause offence or distress are rarely confronted, where - only if absolutely necessary - hushed tones are employed to tenderly dab at awful things. In this world, there are countless souls who could not sigh their pains to anyone.

And from another world, the faithless are left to peer across the divide, struggling to deal with the miseries that are beyond our possibility.