A veteran journalist's take on such diverse subjects as religion and religious violence, democracy, freedom of expression, sociology, journalism, criticism, travel, philosophy, Southeast Asia, politics,economics, and even parenthood, the supernatural, film criticism, and cooking. Please don't hesitate to participate by starting a comment thread if you have an interest in any of these subjects...or anything else, for that matter...

Countries of contrast

Catching the last of the summer in BC

Patrick Guntensperger

Vancouver Island


From the South Seas to the Great White North

Last days of summer on Gabriola Island, BC


So we’re back in Canada.

A little over 36 hours in transit, including a six hour flight from Jakarta, a seven hour layover in Hong Kong, and 12 hours from there to Vancouver, 3 hours in Canada’s immigration office, and then a ferry trip across the Georgia Strait to Nanaimo and then a drive to Parksville was no picnic with a hyperactive 3 year-old. I think my favourite part was when JJ decided somewhere over Hawaii that it was time to do wind sprints up and down the Boeing 777, tagging anyone who was sleeping; four hundred weary travellers found that to be very cute; about as cute as a stomach pump. The payoff was the nearly terminal jetlag; Yolanda’s Dad and Mom and JJ crashed and burned as soon as we turned down their bed; three days later our body clocks are still screwed up and JJ has yet to settle into a pattern of sleep and waking time.

I’ll be eternally grateful to my buddy Art and his lovely wife, Marion; they picked us up at the airport with a truck they had rented in Nanaimo and brought to Vancouver. Marion’s son Jeff was there too, with his truck, so we had transportation to the Horseshoe Bay ferry for all of us and the luggage that was made up of everything we didn’t leave behind in Asia. The seven of us made the crossing together and then drove in a truck and one car to Parksville. I got popped for speeding sometime around midnight as we exited the highway and entered the Parksville city limits. Alex, Yolanda’s father, was blown away by the politeness of the RCMP officer who stopped us, wrote me a warning and neglected to solicit a bribe. When he displayed a big smile, said “Welcome home, sir” to me, and to Alex, “Please enjoy your stay in Canada!” Alex was gobsmacked.

In between bouts of sleeping off the flights and taking care of a bewildered and emotionally seesawing JJ, we are getting the yard and garden ready for fall, restocking the larder and cooking new foods for JJ and Alex and Ana.

 Despite our exhaustion, we are engaged in a whirlwind visit. Yolanda’s parents are being introduced to life in Canada and so far we have visited the Cathedral Forest, Englishman River falls, the famous Nanaimo waterfront, the Parksville boardwalk and community oceanfront park, Gabriola Island, and a dozen other places of interest, mostly involving the outdoors. Yolanda’s parents are experiencing a high level of positive culture shock; they are astonished at the open friendliness of the people, the cleanliness of all public places, the fact that access to most of the places we visit is free, the courtesy shown by drivers, the cheerfulness of employees of retail outlets, and the helpful decency of civil servants. Alex keeps remarking on the fact that Canadians in contrast to Indonesians seem extraordinarily outgoing, happy, and outdoor loving. JJ is totally entranced by all the little blonde girls, and has fallen in love with our neighbour’s little girl Marissa.

 We have until the middle of September before Alex and Ana head back to Southeast Asia and my little family tries to settle into a normal life. I have to restart the book that I set aside to go to Indonesia, Yolanda wants to get some work experience, and JJ needs to join a playgroup before we’ll know whether his hyperactivity needs any sort of treatment. In the meantime, we’ll continue to show my parents in-law around their daughter and grandson’s new home.

Sunny but cool with a chance of pumpkins


Only a Pawn in Their Game

Although I wrote this piece a while back, I have withheld it from publication until my son was safely free to go to Canada. The contents will explain that decision.


Jacob Simon Julian Alex Guntensperger

Patrick Guntensperger

Jakarta, Indonesia


My son finally has a judicial order of adoption confirming that he is, in fact, my son in the eyes of the laws of Indonesia and Canada. It was obtained when an Indonesian justice signed the order that had taken three years and over $125,000.00 in expenses – including travel between Canada and Indonesia, between cities in Indonesia, to Singapore where much of Canada’s Indonesian mission’s work is done, and (mostly) bribes for Indonesian civil servants and officials of various types. It cost my now late parents their opportunity to meet their grandson; the greed, inefficiency, and corruption that defines Indonesia kept my family separated by half the planet for months at a time, carrying out a legal procedure that should have been completed in about six months with little fuss and nominal fees.

The judge who signed the court order, however, made sure that he stuck the knife in, even though he was giving us the long sought written decision, a decision to which we were manifestly entitled years ago under the laws of both Indonesia and Canada. He stuck it to us in this way: An Indonesian Order of Adoption has two parts; an acknowledgement of the adoption itself, and a secondary order granting the adoptee’s change of name to that of his family. Because I had refused to pay the judge the full demanded tip, “administration fee”, “expression of gratitude”, bribe, or whatever you wish to call it for letting us into his courtroom for him to sign the order, but had only agreed to give him half in advance and the balance when he did his job, he only gave us the first part. We now need a new court date to obtain a name change for my son; until then, he is the Indonesian equivalent of “Baby John Doe 2009/02” and he is unable to obtain documents, like a Canadian citizenship or passport in Canada, or anything at all here in Indonesia. The pro always beats the amateur.

It’s important to be clear that all the criteria for adoption had been met and we were and are entitled to these Orders under the laws of Indonesia and of Canada….the personal gratuity (bribe) was not to encourage the judge to see things our way, or to disregard law or ethics; on the contrary, it is a charge he demands to do what he law already requires of him. And there’s no way around it; no bribe: no court date, no adoption. So now I have to pay him another fee in advance so he will sign the name change portion of the Order…something he is required to do as part of the adoption process, which already has ministerial approval. He gets away with this extortion not by denying us due process, but simply by setting our court date in his judicial calendar several years in the future, which he would keep postponing, and only suddenly finding a five minute opening when the envelope stuffed with cash is handed over and the money is counted. Every single court case, including every criminal trial, in Indonesia is conducted in this fashion. And everyone accepts it. An honest judge is one who moderates his demands, whereas a corrupt judge is one who sells criminal court verdicts at an unreasonably high price. There simply is no sense that justice could or should be equally applied to those with a lot of money and those with less. Justice, like beauty, or any other positive thing is, in this money obsessed country, a commodity; and like all commodities, it is for sale.

The hostage

The chip in this game of Jakarta Hold ’em

Of course the people of Indonesia are an unhappy lot. If they are important (read rich) they screw everybody, so their lives are miserable in any moral or spiritual sense although physically comfortable. If they are one of the unimportant masses (read poor) they are constantly being screwed and fantasising about how they would screw everybody else if they only had the opportunity. The truth is that every Indonesian child’s dream is that he will have his turn at the trough when he grows up. It is a pathetic, miserable place, and until the materialism which is at the very centre of the Indonesian soul is replaced with something – anything – else, this will always be a pathetic, miserable country notable primarily for its hypocrisy,  astonishing greed, heart wrenching poverty, pockets of obscene wealth, endemic corruption, appalling pollution, great weather, and cheap, beautiful prostitutes.

My son will have dual citizenship until he’s eighteen; at that point he’ll have to decide whether he wants to be Indonesian or Canadian. Unless there is some cataclysmic change in the next decade and a half, that call will be an absolute no brainer.




Stuck Inside of Java with the Bekasi Blues Again

Jakarta"s International airport

Soekarno-Hatta, Jakarta’s International Airport

Indonesia: The Nightmare Continues
Patrick Guntensperger

JAKARTA, INDONESIA – I’m sitting in the airport transit hotel drinking an overpriced Bintang and listening to JJ as he watches cartoons in the bedroom of the only room they had left when I checked us all in…an overpriced suite with a view of the glidepaths of the “international” airport’s runways. JJ loves watching the planes as they depart, waving and saying, “bye, bye!” as the jets climb away, close enough that through the aircraft’s tiny windows you can almost see the flight attendants showing everyone how to inflate their life-vests in the unlikely event of an oxymoronic water landing.

We almost made it. Yolanda, JJ, and her father were already in the departure lounge and all I had to do was clear passport control, then we would have been out of this wretched hell-hole. I had checked with the immigration department and they told me that my exit visa (which had expired as the result of my having had to wait for all the Indonesian civil servants’ broken promises and false assurances to be fulfilled) could be extended simply upon request and production of certain documents at any immigration office. I had asked the supervisor at the main Jakarta office and he told me that the immigration office at passport control at the airport would be the quickest and easiest forum for such a simple matter.

My turn at the counter; I explained my needs and with no formalities I found myself in custody at the airport for trying to leave the country without proper documentation. Cathay Pacific agents helpfully had our luggage pulled from the cargo bay of our getaway vehicle and had it returned to the terminal. My wife, my hyperactive 3 year old son, and my father-in-law were escorted from the departure lounge and our plane left without us. They were permitted to leave Indonesia, but opted to stay if I couldn’t join them. It seems that what I had been told was, to put it clearly, utter bullshit.

The truth was that only the Manado office (2,500 miles away on the island of North Sulawesi) could issue me an extension or new exit visa as that had been where the first one was obtained, and that even attempting to obtain one elsewhere was an offence. Why this should be the case, why every civil servant I spoke to told me differently, why I was finding this out under these circumstances was never explained. Just big smiles and admonishments that this was Indonesia and I had to respect her laws. When I realised that these sadistic pricks were having too much fun fucking my life up even to take a bribe to do what could be done in any civilised country – let a person who had done nothing whatever wrong simply leave with his family – I pointed out that they could expect me to obey Indonesia’s laws, but asking me to respect them was an idiotic request.

Further, it only took a couple of phone calls to determine that the only penalty for attempting to leave without an exit visa was the requirement that one be obtained; being held in custody was nothing more than a scam to elicit a bribe. I let the scumbag airport security know that I was leaving their custody and they’d have to shoot me if they wanted me to stay. So I left. They were chagrined to see that day’s coercion income walking out the door, but it was a game of chicken…I kept going; they shrugged and went back to their perches and waited for the next likely looking victim.

So, after having spent the last 12 hours cancelling and rescheduling flights, (Jakarta-Hong Kong, Hong Kong-Vancouver, Vancouver-Qualicum) absorbing the thousands of dollars in cancellation fees and increased fare prices, having Yolanda’s sister Fali fly to Manado with bribe money and my documentation, settling into an overpriced transit hotel with more luggage than Marco Polo took when he travelled to China, and eating Xanax like M&Ms, things have settled down a bit. Now I’m ready to do what one does best in this piece of shit excuse for a country…wait for people to fulfill their lying promises and live up to their bullshit utterly empty assurances.

So here we are. Tomorrow we move to Bekasi (a suburb of Jakarta, where Yolanda’s father has a house) with all of JJ’s toys and books, all of Yolanda’s excess baggage, the one carry-on out of which I have been living for the last three months, and all of the parting gifts we were given when we left Indonesia for good, or thought we did. There we will wait to see if the “promised” documentation is completed, all the boxes ticked, and the civil servants responsible for doing so properly bribed. Then we will try again. All we want to do is leave this wretched shithole never to return; it’s still an open question as to whether that will be permitted by a culture that thrives on lies, theft, corruption, and the suffering of others.



Bali: Travels with Zippy 2

Bali, Indonesia

Patrick Guntensperger


We started our second and last day in Bali by cruising up past the fabled terraced padi fields to a volcano, just letting the atmosphere of Bali soak in. After so long in Jakarta, It’s hard to believe you’re in the same country. I am close to the edge of my sanity, my temper is at a razor’s edge, and I am desperate to get out of Indonesia. But even 48 hours in Bali has random thoughts of retirement here wafting through my tropical-atmosphere-addled brain. It is serene, gentle, tolerant, where Jakarta is hostile, angry, and devoid of courtesy. Bali even smells better. A lot better.

 During that first day and the next we ate overlooking the utterly astonishing and legendary terraced fields, rode motorcycles up a volcano, visited a monkey forest where I think I got engaged, toured the famous nightclubs  (including the rebuilt Paddy’s where 80 tourists were murdered by terrorists), visited practically empty beaches, bought souvenirs on Poppy’s lanes 1 & 2 (winding back alleys of kiosks, fake anything, T shirts, Viagra, Cialis,

The Kendi Mas...highly recommended

The Kendi Mas (Golden Jug?) a great boutique hotel in Bali

and acid vendors, surf shops, legal magic mushroom stands, bars and the occasional really good restaurant. It was over all too soon.


For everything I have said and will likely say again or more stridently about the abortion of a country that is Indonesia, I love Bali! Enjoy the pics below:

If you think there no carbon emissions, it depends on the driver's lunch

Still the best way to get around on Java

An Ancient way of mountain rice farming

Padi fields from our restaurant

It was my banana she was after

In the monkey forest near Ubud

The South Seas; no wonder we dream about them

Kuta isn't the only or even best of Bali's beaches

my loves

the loves of my life

Looks cool, but he has a movie star's temperment.

A very serious, philosophical ape. Makes me think of me.

Across Java With Zippy

Travels with Zippy

Patrick Guntensperger

Yogyakarta, Central Java,

Special Sultanate

The original idea was that Zippy and I would go with JJ and Yolanda on a quick overnight train trip, visit the ancient capital of Indonesia, Jogyakarta, and then Zippy and I would perhaps move on for a few days in Bali, from where she would fly on to Singapore to visit family in Szechuan and Shanghai, while I went back to Jakarta: JJ is still too much of a handful for full-tilt-boogie 2-3 day Bali coverage.

 Still, the expedition turned into a typically well-organised Indonesian project. The rather pejorative expression “Chinese fire drill” while bigoted, gives a sense of the chaos and lack of direction of a mob of people each with their own agenda and lack of interest or attention to any centralised direction. A “Chinese fire drill” would make the Indonesian planning and execution of anything more complicated than picking a Rupiah up off a table look like a performance by the Lipizzaner Stallions on a particularly disciplined day. Herding cats has nothing on organising Indonesians.

 By the time we were actually leaving the apartment in north Jakarta, my father-in-law, Mother-in-law, and 9-year-old niece had joined the party. Just trying to get all of us on the same train made Noah’s job of rounding up pairs of every living creature appear to be a simple administrative task suitable to be delegated to his newest intern.  The bedlam involved in organising that many people with that much luggage had to be seen to be believed; and just to prove that old sayings often lack merit, the only person prepared, with minimal luggage and able to follow simple requests, and capable of staying in one place for 30 seconds without wandering off was Zippy, the only ethnically Chinese person in our group. That said, we somehow managed to find our seats and depart with all our stuff and prepare for a trip through the central Javanese highlands.

 I can’t tell you much about the trip, as due to the lateness, there was little to see, JJ had burned himself out, Zippy was still jet-lagged from her flight earlier from China, and I apparently snored a cacophony that was enjoyed by the entire car of out train. I can tell you this though: the track runs through small villages, coconut palm stands, raw jungle, papaya and mango orchards, padi field after padi field, and skirts mountainsides and idyllic valleys giving one a sense of the sheer size of Java, a sense that is belied by the crush of population one assumes of the entire island if Jakarta is the only stopping-off point. We arrived at Yogya’s train station where we took a taxi to the hotel we had booked online.

to give a sense of the scale of the temple

a sacred tourist trap

JJ fascinated by the Buddhas in the bowls

stairway to Nirvana

We spent a whirlwind couple of days in the ancient capital, visiting Borobudur Temple, the largest and oldest standing Buddhist temple in the world, a half dozen Hindu temples of varying decrepitude and venerability, and then wheeled down Marlioboro Street, the shopping and eating Mecca of the city; very interesting in Ramadan….no discernible difference. My becak  (Bicycle rickshaw) driver was happy to chug a cold beer in the middle of the day, when I offered him one; Islamic totems dangling from his handlebars notwithstanding.

Serious south Javan Architecture

JJ and Gaby love the black volcanic sand

 The next day was a beach day, devoted to letting the kids have all the time they wanted on the south Javanese coast. They had a great time. I, on the other hand, was doing just under lightspeed on a rented four wheel all-terrain vehicle when a tie rod snapped and I cartwheeled across the sand a good hundred metres and totalled the vehicle. In my youth, I would have charged a fortune for a spectacular stunt like that. Apart from that the beach was great, the water was warm and no sharks were spotted. JJ made his first sandcastle under the careful tutelage of his cousin Gaby.

A neglected beac h on Sougth Jzava

2 seconds till I cartwheel

In the late afternoon, we put my father and mother-in-law and niece on the train back to Jakarta and Yolanda, Zippy and I packed for the last stop on Zippy’s Indonesian Odyssey. On to Bali. We took the last flight of the day and arrived at about midnight; after a short hunt for a driver who knew where to find the hotel we had booked online,. The hotel was called the Santosa City Hotel and was quite simply the worst hotel in the known universe. At least for the money they charged. And that they charged any money at all is a sin against nature.

 First of all, despite its self-description on Agoda it was miles from anything of interest, industrial buildings surrounded it and the chief local industry seemed to be motorcycle and automobile repair and streetwalking. The staff was surly, not happy to see anyone nqwho didn’t book by thye hour and was unlikely to o0rder condoms from room service, and although we had booked early, were forced to trudge up several flights of stairs carrying our own luggage. We lugged our bags up the narrow staircases of a concrete bunker with all the charm of a condemned tampon factory to our rooms, one “special” for Zippy and a “deluxe extra” for me and Yolanda and JJ.

Sprung mattresses, filthy tile floors, the only light in the room, a bare overhead bulb with a switch ten feet from the bed. Dismayed, exhausted, and realising that it was far too late to start looking for better (any other) accommodations, Zippy knocked on our door to ask if we had any hot water. Together we all checked and found out that there was nothing available in our room but a trickle of tepid, yellowish, foul smelling liquid available.

  We decided bathe in Zippy’s icy shower, to hunker down for the night, and forego the three nights we had booked. My reasoning was that although I had possibly (although it’s a close call) spent worse nights in a Mexican prison cell, at least I hadn’t had to put it on a Visa card.   The staff seemed to be relieved when we checked out two days early.

The next day a typically friendly Balinese taxi driver took us to an hotel that cost less than half what Santosa City charges and was lovely. The hotel is called the Kendi Mas (means something like “golden water jug”) It was charming; oozing with Balinese character, had a delightful guest services staff, large airy rooms, hot and cold water on demand, a five minutes walk from Kuta, (fun central on Bali) and more than anything, felt like the people there were delighted to have us. Now this is the Bali I know. We checked in fairly early and were in the pool within ten minutes; me with a beer in one hand and the other occupied with keeping JJ from trying his burgeoning swimming skills in deep water. Plans made, we had one of the staff call a car and driver/guide to take us to the must-sees on Zippy’s list.

First was a zoo, because she was determined not to leave without having experienced an elephant ride. The best elephant excursion is connected to a zoo about an hour’s drive from the Kendi Mas.   On the way, we ticked off another of the items on her list; we realised we had yet to eat and we were in Babi Guling country. (See my articles on that special food). So we killed an hour or so at a charming roadside open-air restaurant that sold nothing but Balinese-style roast suckling pig and rice. Absolute heaven; the meat tender, succulent, delicious, the fat crackling and artery exploding. With an ice-cold Bintang, you couldn’t ask for anything more and you wonder why you ever eat anything else.

On to the zoo. The elephant excursion was a little over an hour through a jungle, including a swamp for the vehicles to cool down and have a drink and hose down the riders (we experienced elephant mahouts bring a bag of peanuts or some produce with which to bribe our mounts to avoid soaking us when showering. The elephants are Indonesian, so this actually works). Since JJ had opted to go on his ride with ZiZi, they didn’t have the benefit of my experience and came back, JJ laughing his ass off as he and Zizi were covered with warm swamp-water, or pachyderm snot, as ZIZI put it. Yolanda and I were dry as a bone, thanks to the carrots with which I had paid off Amelia, my 12 foot plodding steed.


a bribe of produce keeps your mount from spraying you. I didn't tell zippy wo was with JJ

I bribed Amelia the elephant not to hose us down


JJ and Zippy;1st time mahouts

They didn’t get the memo, they got hosed…..

More on Bali as soon as I get some good WIFI …enditem…

Fear and loathing in Paradise

An unhappy country of unhappy people

Patrick Guntensperger

Jakarta Indonesia


For all of my bitching and whining about Indonesia, clearly the country holds some attraction for me. I have, after all, spent more than ten years here and have written almost obsessively about the place; it is my wife’s country of birth, and it’s where my son was born, too. Climate like you would imagine paradise has to offer, and in some, even most, parts of the country away from the big cities, beautiful beyond words.

Nevertheless, I do bitch about this place frequently and at length. But pretty much everything I find exasperating about Indonesia has to do with the people and their social behaviour… not the country itself. This could be a paradise on earth, but the Indonesian people are unhappy and seem to want everyone else to be; they certainly go out of their way to make themselves and everyone else miserable.

Unhappy people;unhappy country

The face of joy

On the face of it, an archipelago which is made up of 17,000, tropical islands, strung along the equator, only a fraction of which are inhabited and nearly half of which haven’t even been explored should be a tourist’s wet dream; it should be ground zero for ecotourism in the most benign climate on earth. A flight over the archipelago reveals island after island which would make a perfect castaway atoll; square miles of untouched jungle surrounded by white sand beaches protected by coral reefs, punctuated by lagoons with freshwater waterfalls and streams from lakes in the craters of dead volcanoes pouring into the saline inlets. Because of Captain James Cook and the Royal Navy’s policy of releasing a breeding pair of pigs (as potential sustenance for potential British castaways), on every uninhabited island they came across they have an indigenous population of wild pigs as well as monkeys, lizards of all sorts, and an unfathomable assortment of tropical birds. The fish, shellfish, and other edible denizens of the coral reefs surrounding the pristine islands are amazingly abundant, coconut palms predominate and the fruit trees on the islands are productive and enormously varied…you’d have to be a halfwit not to survive comfortably on almost any of these postcard little paradises.

What’s not to like?

 I used to believe that the Indonesian culture included an utter indifference bordering on disdain for strangers, or anyone outside of their immediate circle of family and friends. That belief was developed as the result of years of living within a society where people think nothing about elbowing others out of their way, pile into elevators without a moment’s hesitation to allow passengers to exit, where shouting in the hallways of hotels in the middle of the night is commonplace, where people simply toss their trash wherever they happen to be, and a thousand other indications of absolute lack of consideration for the convenience or even the existence of others.

 Recently I was stepping up onto a sidewalk with the intention of using an ATM. A woman was standing in the doorway of the ATM, holding it open, as in thought. She suddenly turned and shrieked at the top of her lungs to a friend across the street, but directly into my face with a voice that would have loosened Marlee Matlin’s bowels, close enough that I could tell that she had just eaten nasi goreng for lunch; had her mouth been open one more millimetre during her window shattering address to her friend, I could have told you what she had had for breakfast. She then irritably elbowed me to one side and repeated the bellow as I wiped spittle from my eyes and poorly chewed bits of rice off my face. I was in the way, you see, and I just didn’t register as a human being to her, let alone a human being deserving of at least the bare minimum of consideration, despite the fact that I was now handicapped by deafness and near blindness from the pong of sambal that acted as pepper spray on my air pollution-weary eyes..

Nevertheless, to be fair, I no longer believe that the Indonesian cultural imperative has to do with indifference to others. I believe it has to do with active hostility to others. It is apparent that there is, in Indonesian culture, an inclination to make life as uncomfortable for others as one can without (in many cases) actually mugging them.

 It is so common an observation that it’s no longer a joke that the motto of the service industry as well as the public service (one hesitates to employ the word “civil”) in Indonesia is’ “Why make it easy when you can make it hard?” Everything from retail outlets to access to buildings and the offices within seem to be deliberately set up in such a fashion as to make  life difficult for the person who wishes to make use of them.

 Try to buy a can of baby formula in one of the largest chain stores (Carrefour) in the country.

 Although the parent company is French, I’m willing to bet that in France, one doesn’t have to go through the following procedure: Ask three employees where in the store one can find that particular commodity and get three different answers, ranging from “We don’t carry it,” through, “We’re sold out,” to “over there, maybe.” Find the item on a shelf with a chain preventing you from taking it. Find a junior manager or security guard to find a junior manager who finally arrives with a key to release the chain. The item is handed over but has a security band with an electronic device attached. Take the item to a special cash register at the end of the aisle; find another junior manager or security guard to find a cashier for you. Pay for it in cash because their credit card reader won’t work with credit cards with a PIN. The junior manager then removes the security device, places the can of formula into a zippered canvas bag, much like a bank deposit bag, which she then locks with a key attached to her belt and hands you the cash register receipt. You finish your shopping and go to the lineup at the cashier which extends a few hundred metres down the aisle. Of course, although this is prime shopping time, there are only two or three out of perhaps thirty cash lines open, despite there being literally dozens of cashiers at their cash registers gossiping. They’re “resting” you’re told.

After about forty five minutes they start to run your purchases through; this time they take your card but it doesn’t work. You explain three times that you need to enter a PIN but the cashier shakes her head and says “Bukan, Mister!” She calls a manager. You wait. He eventually finishes resting, shows up, and tells her she needs to have you enter a PIN. It finally works. Then she asks for your receipt for the formula; she scrutinises it, calls the manager again, who resentfully returns from resting again, and scrutinises it even more thoroughly. Finally he reluctantly acknowledges that all is in order, produces a key attached to his belt by a chain, opens the canvas bag and lets you have your purchase.

 I have bought heroin in the Mormon Tabernacle with greater ease. There is less protocol and security involved to arrange a private audience with the Pope. On Easter Sunday. When he’s on his deathbed. Why make it easy when you can make it hard?

 The simple answer is that if you make things easy for people, they might be fractionally less unhappy; that would be intolerable in a country that is so dissatisfied with itself. Everyone is miserable; everyone tries to make everyone else as or, better yet, more miserable than they are themselves.

 I contrast this with other parts of the world that in some ways are comparable to Indonesia. The islands of the Caribbean, for instance, are about the same distance north of the equator as many of the Indonesian islands are south; their climates are virtually identical, the topographies mirror one another’s. If you were to drop blindfolded onto an uninhabited island in either location, you would be hard pressed to tell whether you were in the Java Sea or the Caribbean.

And yet, to take as an example my favourite Caribbean island, in Barbados, the people love life. The literacy rate is virtually 100%. Since the amicable negotiation of independence from her colonial status with Great Britain, every election has been peaceful although enthusiastically contested. There is a party atmosphere everywhere…not just in the tourist centres. The people are no wealthier than Indonesians, nor do they enjoy better lifestyles if measured materially. The people seem to love their island and make every effort to keep it clean, to recycle, to collect and process garbage, to treat the wilderness areas, including the surrounding waters, with respect. There is music everywhere, predominated

A somewhat less miserable country

by Bajan versions of Calypso and Reggae. (As opposed to televisions turned to the top volume and broadcasting weepy cinetrons, 24/7, plugged in to every power outlet available in every building, public or private.) But there is profound joy in the air along with the music; the smiles with which one is greeted are genuine and reflect pleasure in life and at making your acquaintance, they are not a superficial rictus intended to disguise discontent, hostility, and intent to separate a stranger from whatever money he might have.

 Indonesia needs to undergo a paradigm shift in its cultural outlook before it will ever be a pleasant place to live. If judgmentalism could be eliminated or even reduced in this country, there would be an immediate, palpable improvement in the oppressive atmosphere. Wherever one goes, there is a sense that one is being assessed and found wanting by Indonesian standards.

As I was writing a previous paragraph, while sitting in a hospital waiting room waiting to have a prescription refilled, a mother holding her five year-old’s hand stopped directly in front of me, spoke to the child and pointed at me; they were close enough that I could easily hear them, so she whispered in his ear. She laughed uproariously and nudged him in encouragement until he joined in the laughter. Now, he gets up from his seat by her side across the lobby every minute or so, runs up to me, points at me, and yells, “Bule, Bule, Bule!” (lit. Albino, Albino, Albino! An offensive term for anyone who is neither apparently Indonesian nor black – black people are blessed with their own offensive epithets). This is causing the mother and pretty much everyone else in the crowded waiting room no end of hilarity. It is delightful to watch the mother and the rest of the community teaching a child the 4th R — racism, before the child has a solid grasp of ‘readin, ‘ritin’, or ‘rithmitic. Here, racism is the 1st R, because it hurts people. The rest is secondary, because that kind of learning can help people.

If Indonesians could get the message that most civilised countries got years ago, that we are all human beings deserving of respect and courtesy, the country would be a marginally happier place; if it were even a little, tiny bit slightly happier place, many of the other irritants would be more acceptable; it would start a virtuous cycle that would gradually turn this country into a place with respect for others, tolerance, kindness, and some degree of contentment.

Indonesia, however, has a long way to go before that fundamental but profound shift will be made.


Waiting for Zippy

On the road again

Patrick Guntensperger

Jakarta Indonesia


I have been cynical and negative in my writing about Indonesia, the country in which I am currently living; while I stand behind everything I have said about this country, I recognise that my viewpoint has been coloured somewhat by the circumstances through which I find myself doing time here and the fact that I am endlessly frustrated by an apparently endless process to complete something that should be fairly routine.

 However, my niece (she became my niece when my parents took her mother Xuan, a doctor from Shanghai into our family because of a traumatic life situation into which she had been thrust; Xuan (Jen) has been my sister ever since and her daughter XiXi, who was a precocious seven-year old at the time, has been my niece) who is now a bright somewhat zany medical student will be visiting us toward the end of July. We will go to Yogyakarta with Yolanda, JJ, and my mother in law. After that XiXi and I might go on to Bali for a few days or perhaps Manado before she flies on to Singapore where she will make the connections to visit her grandparents in Shanghai and in Szechuan province.

The pieces I will presumably post as the result of that little excursion will try to be free of preconceptions and entail straightforward accounts of travels with XiXi. Or Zippy as I call her. So just to get the ball rolling, a little background about the places we’ll be visiting.

Jakarta, of course, is Indonesia’s capital city. For some reason, Indonesia is off most people’s radar screen, despite the fact that it is the most populous primarily Muslim-populated country on earth, the world’s largest archipelago, and second to the United States in total population. Jakarta is unquestionably the heart of the country. Although it in no way represents the unique character and innumerable cultures of the country, Indonesia couldn’t exist without Jakarta at the centre of the web. It’s like Rome during the days of the Empire. Having visited Rome didn’t qualify anyone to say that they were familiar with the Empire, but nobody could claim to be familiar with the Roman Empire if they didn’t have the experience of Rome. In this case all roads lead to Jakarta. Or formerly Djakarta. Or before that, Batavia.

It is filthy, disorganised, polluted, corrupt, vast, traffic choked, venal, exciting, boring, endlessly frustrating and endlessly fascinating. You are always happy and excited to arrive here and you are always much happier when you leave.

Yogyakarta is as great a contrast as you can imagine. It has a complex and fluid relationship of semi-autonomy with the rest of the country…it has its own hereditary Sultan, it is authorised to employ some aspects of S’iaria law, and it is the capital of the “Yogyakarta Special Region’ in central Java, and the centre of traditional Javanese art from wayang to batik. It was once the capital of Indonesia, and its name comes from the ancient words “yogya” mean appropriate, or fit and proper, suitable and “karta” meaning prosperous or successful.

 While Jakarta, a city of anywhere from 12 to 28 million people depending on who you ask, and what time of the day it is, is located on the northwest coast of Java, Yogya is about an 8 hour train ride into the interior over gentle hills (the mountains) and through thousands of padi fields, raw jungle, and exotic fruit orchards. We plan to take the train; the last time I went there by car, it was a harrowing experience with roads cut through the most improbable places, blind hairpin turns, and suicidal truck drivers trying to break landspeed records.

 It should be interesting, as we will start our train ride at the beginning of Ramadan since Zippy gets here on the 19th; it’ll be fun showing her around Jakarta’s night life until we leave on the evening of the 20th  while the police are still zealous. They’ll have closed all the brothels, massage parlours; they’ll be strictly monitoring (looking for bribes) at any hotels that have clubs or bars, and will be shutting down any non-starred hotel bars that don’t cater to the police, army officers, and their respective whores. Nightclubs and “executive Karaoke” clubs and “executive spas” (except for the ones for police officers, ranking military assholes and their mistresses) will be shut down, and, strictly speaking, only hotels catering to tourists will be permitted to sell alcohol…and then with all kinds of odd restrictions, mostly involving handing money to very devout Muslim cops, for whom Ramadan, the month of fasting, prayer, and reflection is a godsend and money maker.


More to come.


One more turn of the screw

Slowly, I turned; and step by step…

Patrick Guntensperger

Jakarta, Indonesia


One of my favourite  people and Jakarta dwelling expats commented on my Facebook status that I ought to find a fat lady and make her sing. He was, of course, referring to a status announcement I had posted that brought my friends and followers up to date on my quest to extricate my son from this Southeast Asian black hole. I suppose that hearing me whine for the last three years about the process has even affected the patience of those who casually read my bitching and are astonished at the bureaucratic impediments that the fertile imagination of mendacious civil servants are able to erect in order to require bribes to remove.

 The fat lady ain’t sung yet, but I believe I see her in the wings preparing for her entrance.


One major step

JJ’s order of adoption is now official! 3 years and counting….


 As I write this, my long-suffering Yolanda is in South Jakarta sitting in the sweltering open-air waiting area of an RW (or maybe RT…there are two levels and I have no idea which is which), nearly the lowest ranked civil servant in the country. It is now 7.10pm and she has been waiting since 6.30am, the time of her appointment. She is waiting to pay him and then thank him for accepting the bribe that was negotiated over the phone yesterday, when he finally feels that his importance has been sufficiently established.

These parasites are what are known as “neighbourhood chiefs” and do absolutely fuck all except for apply their rubber stamp to any document you present them along with a bribe. They are elected by the neighbourhood in a biannual popularity contest and they invariably complete their tenure as relatively wealthy men. Their imprimatur is required on certain documents; documents that assure higher authorities that you live in the neighbourhood, that you are not a problem in the neighbourhood, and that you are known in the neighbourhood and to the “chief” personally. Long-stay permits require this, police permits, press passes, pretty much everything requires a stamped document from one of these worthless pricks. They do nothing without a bribe.

 I have dozens of these documents stamped by dozens of these tumorous pustules – for press passes and all kinds of other documents. On each is the personal seal and  sworn statement of a person I met only once….to pay a bribe…that he knows me personally (bullshit) and that I live in his jurisdiction (also bullshit, of course) and that I have never been a problem (true as far as it goes).

Yolanda is going through this charade because we need a court date and we’ve been informed by the clerk of the court in the jurisdiction where we actually live that there are no available dates in the foreseeable future. We need this court date because the last judge we spoke to decided that a separate hearing was required to approve the change of my son’s name to his new family’s name (mine and Yolanda’s) despite his having taken the bribe to hear the motion to adopt and then granting that motion. The supplementary name change motion hadn’t been paid for, so it wasn’t granted along with the adoption as is the usual procedure.

 The statement that there are no court dates available is, of course, a lie… an initial bargaining position for the negotiations over the required “administration fee” to set a date to hear the motion to change JJ’s name (from the Indonesian equivalent of John Doe) to ours. But since the initial position started at “no dates available”, long, painful experience tells us that the required bribe will be astronomical.


Take a goddam nap!!

3 year-olds are the leading causes of headaches in this family. Y & JJ take a break from the pool

So we found a South Jakarta jurisdiction that will hear the motion in our lifetimes; all we need is a dozen documents, one of which requires the stamp and signature of a South Jakarta neighbourhood chief.


All this is being done so we can present the Canadian government (or is it “The Harper Government?) with proof of JJ’s right to citizenship as the legal child of a Canadian citizen. They will then look at the documentation after we have had it written up by the court then translated by a sworn translator, notarised and sent along with a half dozen other forms to someplace in Nova Scotia. Within weeks, I am assured, Part 1 will be completed and the file sent to Singapore. Then the Canadian Embassy in Singapore will require an interview, so either I, Yolanda, JJ, or all, or two of us will fly to Singapore, do our best to persuade some hostile local hire that JJ isn’t a terrorist and that we have genuine plans to keep our son. If he is convinced that these last three years haven’t been an elaborate con, we go back to Jakarta and he will forward the necessary document to our Indonesian consul. Then, with citizenship papers in hand, we apply at the Canadian Embassy for a passport for JJ. That will take a few weeks to process in Ottawa, but eventually he should get one.


Hey Andy...bourbon and coke!

Pool service at the apartment

If everything goes well…the bribes, the translations, the name change, Part1 of the citizenship application, Part 2 of the citizenship application, the passport application and all the unforeseen, we will fly back to Canada so my now 3 and ½ year old son can start his life. Best case scenario…2 months. Worst case scenario… indefinite waiting and expenses. And there is no way everything will go smoothly. There is a fan; there is shit. Without question, the two shall have a close encounter before this is all over. We shall see.

JJ and PAGUN at the apartment swimming pool


Meanwhile we wait. And wait. Of course there are worse places to wait. Not much, but worse.



Thanks for the Memories

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.

The seedy backpacker Mecca of Jakarta

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

In front of Memorie's sidewalk bar

Working Jalan Jaksa denizen at Memories

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.


Oh, Jakarta…how I’ve missed you!

Once more into the breach

Patrick Guntensperger

Jakarta, Indonesia


I have only been gone from this country since January; that’s only about four months, and it’s like going back through the looking glass to settle in once more.

There is of course the weather. Stepping off the plane after the gruelling flights from Vancouver Island to Vancouver, then from Vancouver to Hong Kong, then Hong Kong Kong to here – a total of about 36 hours in transit – the heat and humidity (or warmth and sultriness, depending on whether you’ve had enough Xanax for the journey) hit you immediately. Coming from an island off Canada’s west coast in May, the difference is considerable; there it would get down to just a few degrees above the frost point at night and climb to a balmy 20-23C if it was sunny; less if it was rainy, as it usually was, as the daffodils, tulips, and apple blossoms made their appearances. Here the temperature is a collar-wilting 30-34C with a humidity of over 90% at sunrise; by noon it can be a scorching 40 or more.

In contrast to the quiet little retirement-resort community of Parksville, Jakarta is a mega-city, the population of which is anybody’s guess but 12 million seems about right. (During the daytime it can go up to 18 million – people are serious commuters.) The cacophonous bustle is only matched in other Far Eastern mega-cities; enormous western cities like London or even New York can’t lay claim to the uniquely eastern chaos that characterises places like Jakarta and Bangkok. Even after a decade and more of living in this milieu I was taken aback as I struggled to get my bags and conveyance to the temporary apartment that will be my home until we can get JJ’s status sorted out and acquire him an exit visa.

Well, that’s not entirely true… the struggle to get through the airport, at least. The contrasts actually became apparent before the tropical heat slammed into me. I had wisely arranged to have a VIP service waiting to meet me at the airport. Now before the accusations of elitism start flying, a VIP service just means that you know someone who knows someone who holds a medium to high rank in Indonesia’s Customs and Immigration department. These guys usually freelance for “friends” (people willing to pay about $50). They wait in uniform at the arrival gate for your flight with a flunky or two and greet you with salutes, take your carry-on luggage, passport, and baggage claim checks, and escort you past all the tedious legal safeguards intended to control access to a sovereign country. At the baggage carousel, you chat casually with the top guy while one flunky waits for your stuff to appear, and while this is going on the other flunky comes running with your new visa, a stamped passport and plastic ID card (they’ve apparently snapped your picture as you got off the plane) that says you are registered with (protected by) the national police. The flunkies pile your gear onto a trolley and imperiously walk you past customs with your suitcases full of perfume, Cuban cigars, and bottles of hard to find booze bought by the dozen at duty free stores in Canada and China. Welcome to Indonesia.

That’s when you notice the heat.

And then it’s business as usual in Indonesia. Traffic like a punishment for every sin you’ve ever committed, masses of people everywhere, women so beautiful they bring tears to your eyes (even when you’re with a wife whom you love and haven’t seen in months), hawkers, vendors, beggars, lepers, police soliciting “cigarette money” from all of the above, and constant noise. Home again.

But some things have changed since I last stayed in Jakarta several years ago. The last long stretch I spent in Indonesia was mostly in Manado, in the eastern part of the archipelago, the capital city of the provincial island group called the Sulawesis. I had only visited Jakarta for a day or two at a time and stayed either with friends or at international hotels and was thus insulated from some of the realities of day-to-day life in the Big Durian.

This time we’re living in a furnished apartment in a section of Kelapa Gading that is home to virtually no westerners; mine is the only non-Indonesian face in the neighbourhood and I haven’t seen an occidental since I unpacked my scotch and gin in our tiny apartment. One thing that was pretty hard not to notice on the street was the increase in anti-western racism. One place flatly refused to sell me any take-out, saying they were out of food, although they provided my father in law with exactly what I had asked for when he tried less than a minute later. The barber shop in my building was more straightforward: they flat out told me they wouldn’t cut my hair because I was white. When I thanked them (they don’t get sarcasm) and turned to walk out I could hear the quiet jeering and the repeated use of the word “bule” (literally albino but a pejorative epithet for any westerner).

Indonesia has always been a racist country. Indonesians, particularly Javanese, and Jakartans even more particularly, have a preternatural ability to distinguish among shades of skin colour and to assign you a place in their incredibly rigid social hierarchy accordingly, and they can do that instantly and instinctively. Yolanda, having been born in Ambon, in the Malukus, in the eastern part of the country has dark skin, as does JJ. She has always been served last in Jakartan scrums at retail counters, the fact that her skin colour is at the far end of the spectrum from the ideal Chinese ivory tone affects every instance of social interaction she has or has ever had in this country.

Too dark for their own country

When she had just graduated from high school, she was told by the airline to which she had applied for training as a flight attendant (Garuda, incidentally, the national carrier) that she shouldn’t be ridiculous…she was too hitam (black). Ditto for the cruise line to which she applied. The systemic and endemic bigotry is one of the main reasons we are so anxious to get JJ to Canada.

At the other end of the scale, because of my whiter skin I am treated in this country as a walking ATM; I am regularly forced to pay two to ten times as much as an Indonesian would for the same goods or services, I am routinely treated sycophantically while I am fleeced and fucked over. But discounting for a moment the terrorist bombs in Jakarta and Bali that deliberately targeted and killed white western guests in Indonesia, (and killed a friend of mine, maimed several others,  but merely scorched my eyebrows) this completely overt racist discrimination is new to me. It always existed as a subtext, but there was always the sense that, as long as I kept smiling and didn’t object too strenuously to being screwed and laughed at, we could get along.


MMMM good!

In the meantime, the commercial establishments that depend on foreign traffic to stay solvent continue to suck up to the despised bule and ape what they think are western ways. The pictures on this page show my little family eating at a restaurant near the embassy district; it caters to westerners and so its menu reflects the owner’s knowledge and understanding of things western. Please note the items on the menu page. I won’t comment.

The hotdog that almost conquered the world

JJ gazes in awe at Hitler's dog

Great to be back, though. In between bouts of dealing with the realities of bureaucracy and simple things like food shopping and dining out, I sit by our swimming pool and watch JJ. In the late afternoon I make a thermos of martinis and go back down to the pool, sip, write, read and wait until we can finally get out of here.