Back in the saddle again
JAKARTA, INDONESIA – It’s Monday in Jakarta and I’ve just started to get down to the business for which I came back to the Far East. I’ve made the necessary appointments, placed the needed phone calls and have started what I hope is the final stage in the process that started over three years ago when we adopted my little boy, JJ.
So I’m sitting in a well-remembered café on Jalan Jaksa in central Jakarta having a pre-lunch Bintang in my customary seat. It’s open to the street and the stifling city air is only disturbed by the slowly rotating overhead fans; although the street has changed…many of the old backpacker haunts and whorehouses have been torn down and gentrification is the order of the day…some things remain the same. The owner of the all-too-appropriately named Memories Café greeted me as though she’d seen me yesterday, although it’s been years since I’ve dropped in here, and the news guy dropped off copies of the Post and the Globe as he always did when I hung out here routinely and wrote for those papers. The same whores, a little longer in the tooth, but still their friendly selves, along with a new crop of young ones, stroll by or perch on the stools at the sidewalk bar, desultorily plying their trade and gossiping.
Groups of genetically identical backpackers, mostly from Holland or Australia, still in their
teens and self-satisfied in their shared but grotesquely erroneous conviction that they are deeply appreciated visitors, hang out for hours ordering nothing but bottled water. Each generation is blissfully convinced that the $20 per day that they spend in this impoverished but money obsessed country is like manna from heaven to the local population and remains oblivious to the fact that they are despised for their cheapness and that the smiles they encounter are not smiles of gratitude for their non-existent largesse, but rather culturally dictated expressions employed to disguise their real feelings about strangers. That hasn’t changed.
I turn to the newspapers and am hardly surprised to see that the news, except for minor details, could have been pulled from a Jakarta daily at pretty much any time in the last decade. One of ex-dictator Soeharto’s grandchildren (it used to be that piece of shit’s children…now it’s their piece of shit children) is being investigated for having embezzled billions of dollars from their beloved country. He’s of course ignored a summons to appear before the investigatory board as he’s currently in Singapore, and everyone knows that nothing whatever will come of the show investigation. Remember, Soeharto is the man that historians have described as the most corrupt head of state in the history of the world, and he lived his life in happiness, respect, and prosperity, even after he was ousted; the current president kissed his ring on his deathbed and led the country in a day of mourning for one of history’s arguably most brutal and certainly most avaricious dictators. Let’s also remember that his favourite son, affectionately called Tommy, paid for the assassination of the Supreme Court judge who had found him guilty of embezzlement. Tommy Soeharto was sentenced to spend 15 years in prison for the contract murder but had his sentence reduced five times by the current president (who was one of Soeharto’s protégés) and spent a total of about four years – literally – in a country club. While he was paying his debt to society for premeditated contract murder, I personally saw him and his entourage of porno models and body guards as they occupied a Jakarta golf course in a moveable party, complete with champagne, cocaine, and golf carts equipped with music systems and very attractive whores.
Meanwhile, both English language dailies report that at least two Islamic fundamentalist groups have promised to disrupt if they can’t eliminate a scheduled Lady Gaga performance here in Jakarta. Swearing that they will die to prevent her from spreading her “satanic message” to good Muslims (like Tommy Soeharto, presumably) they vow to greet her violently in the tens of thousands at the airport and forcibly prevent her from disembarking on their land. The national police who are responsible for granting performance permits have yet to do so; they are, as usual, torn between the enormous bribes the concert promoters will have had to pay and the threats emanating from the peace-loving Islamic forces of good. And as usual, the police have decided to postpone any final decision on the matter…the controversy after all puts them in an ideal bargaining position to push the bribe demands to stratospheric levels.
I sit here in this humid pleasantly seedy bar, soaking up the atmosphere and quarts of beer, sweating like a hungover teacher on parents’ day, and wait for a return call from any one of the half-dozen or so Indonesian civil servants with whose secretaries I have left messages. It’s a pantomime, really, because years of experience tells me I can wait until universal peace has been achieved and world hunger conquered before any Indonesian government officer will actually return a phone call to someone who doesn’t outrank him. The dance will involve me repeating this series of pointless actions for the rest of the week, and then finally show up at his office where I will sit on a hard-backed chair in the heat and humidity outside his air-conditioned office for the whole day, while he entertains friends, has his lunch sent in, takes a few tea breaks, watches the ubiquitous television no civil servant can live without, and then takes a well-deserved nap at his desk. After a day or two of this, and having established his importance and superior status, he will deign to give me a moment, if only to tell me I’ve either done it all wrong or that it’s not his department. He’ll then offer to help me out “as a friend”; I’ll reciprocate the offer; we’ll arrive at a price; I’ll pay the bribe; he might or might not stamp whatever document needs his department’s stamp, and I’ll be on my way to the next civil servant for a repeat performance of the corruption two-step. In the past, I’ve simply had a stamp made with the appropriate departmental logo and applied it to follow-up documents, but that option isn’t available until I’ve seen at least one original. Benzodiazepines were invented for a reason.
As I was writing that last sentence an old hunched-over man, pushing a wheelbarrow containing an equally old woman, timidly opened the bat-wing saloon doors that form the entrance to this café. The woman was missing a few digits on her left hand and had very little of her right hand or lower right leg; the open sores of leprosy were on grotesque display. The old man stood there pathetically making eating gestures with his hands, but not crossing the threshold. I gave the old man about a hundred thousand Rupiah and with downcast eyes and calling me “Tuan” (Lord), he trundled his doomed (although perfectly treatable) wife down the road to whatever fate awaits those about whom nobody gives a shit.
Indonesia, my heart continues to bleed for you.