Doing nothing in the Gili Islands

dsc_0306Three Swedes have barely moved 15 metres in eight days. It is an impressive feat for any self respecting tourist but on Gili Trawangan, self respect is not something you either seek or find.
Chalek, Andreas and Louise sit in a pool bar over the fence from their bungalow, sipping Heineken and playing guitar.
“So have you gone snorkelling yet? Apparently it is great snorkelling here,” I ask.
Chalek smiles. “We went once. It was ok. We prefer this,” Chalek takes another swig of his beer.
Up and down streets paved with a muddy blend of sand and dirt, tourists from around the world trudge. What they are searching for is not clear because on Gili Trawangan there is not that much to see.
To your left, a bar. To the right, a restaurant. A little further down the road, a different kind of restaurant, one that serves more hallucinogenic fare to the thousands of punters that land here every week.
What they look for is not clear. Robi and his five friends have not come far. They were all born and now work on Lombok, just a half an hour boat ride away. But the Gilis offer something a little different.
“A getaway,” Robi says in-between sly drags on a mild cloved Sampoerna. “It is good to come here, it’s peaceful and hey,” Robi shrugs, “it’s fun.”
I feel I must agree. There are few places in the world where the express intention of the destination is to engage in the activity of nothing. And nothing can be very relaxing. But after three days of it, you can’t help but feel a little exhausted.
When the lights go down on Gili Trawangan, the pavements become a little safer. The taxi service, served by elaborately belled up horse drawn carts, disperses. Now the traffic is bronzed, burnt and boozed Europeans.Here nationality stands out a mile away.

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Three Finns with fluro yellow back-to-front caps stumble in front of me blurting random hilarities to each other in a bastardised Finglish. I know they are from Finland.
“Hey you,” one turns around and stares at me. He throws his arms up in air. “Finland!”
I nod and smile politely.
For an island with such a renowned reputation, Gili Trawangan is subdued most nights. However, every night without fail you can hear the thump of live music from Sama Sama. The bass lines of Bob Marley building with each step.
On stage is a six piece band. They were practicing this afternoon. The lead singer sits on a stool with tight black jeans and dreadlocks waving his hands and tapping his feet with each beat.
It’s good music. I look over and see Chalek. Almost incredibly, he has moved perhaps 200 metres down the road and resettled himself in with another Heineken.
He smiles and raises his half drunk green bottle in my direction. I feel strangely out of place with nothing in my hand to echo his sentiment. So I go to the bar.
After some convincing, the vessel which is handed to me is not German pale ale. But a paper cup, with a straw and some black muck. It tastes of a strange combination of dirt and banana and black muck. My favourite.

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After a few songs, they invite their friend Indiana on stage.
What follows represents one of the most melodically incongruous but strangely pleasing arrangements of music I have heard: An apparent Native American Indian, dressed in full Apache regalia including tomahawk, singing and dancing traditional American Indian songs with a reggae band in the tropics of Indonesia. But it worked. And now the muck is working. The blend of atmosphere both internal and external is intriguing.
Though people end up here for different reasons, more often than not, the intention of the trip is the same. Nothing.
Ashleigh has been teaching in South Korea for two years. After that it was time to get out. After university she got out of Canada, and now she is here. Beer in hand, friend by her side. “I am enjoying life really. I’m not sure if I want to go back to Korea but at the moment I’m not thinking about that. At the moment, I’m just travelling.”
Indiana has finished his set and he is awkwardly clapped off stage. He resumes his spot at the back of the bar with his blonde American partner. She looks like what Pocahontas would have looked like if Barbie had franchised her as an Aryan image of her former glory.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” my Aussie compatriot, Beau says, gesturing toward the couple. “But good.”
Down on the beach is something else altogether impromptu. Midnight dips are not the most novel idea in the world, but thousands of miles from the bustle of Jakarta, swimming in the pitch black of the Gili Sea seems pure genius.
However in the present state, the climbing of moored boats and jumping off their framing into the inky water below is probably not the most intelligent pastime, but that does not mean any less enjoyment.
Richard, another Australian chum, clambers aboard and hoists himself up onto the flimsy roof. He jumps, woops and disappears. A pause. His head breaks the surface and his face is contorted. “I got spiked.”
We swim ashore and look down at his foot. Three black holes stare back. The heartbeat races.
One of the band members is found close by and he comes to inspect. One exclamation and two words that any self respecting tourist never thinks they want to hear: “Awww Fire Fish.”
Cue expletives. And then some other words.
“Here tie this around your leg.”
Fire fish sounds nasty but there is no emergency service on Gili Trawangan, apparently just this zonked out reggae freak with a piece of coral in one hand and lime in the other. He proceeds to systematically beat Rich’s foot and squeeze on lime, presumably for taste. It looks awfully impressive and half an hour later it seems it is. Rich is still alive and I am still laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation.
Rich stumbles home, plonks himself on his bed. Hopefully to wake up and do nothing all over again.

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The Walk Begins

jakarta1-1171Working in a foreign county, especially one so foreign as Indonesia, is quite the experience. Things work differently here, when they work at all. So I thought a simple compare and contrast might be apt so to attempt to familiarise yourself with the little peccadilloes that exist here.
 jakarta1-145I apparently am a reporter. Working in Nelson, if I want to do an interview 10km away it will take me a very short time to organise and mobilise to get there. Rock up, talk some smack, wriggle some squiggles, shake hands exchange pleasantries. Boom. Done. Oh yea then you gotta write something
Here an interview is a somewhat different occurrence. The language barrier is there standing strong like a beefed up Berlin Wall with a leathered up David Hasslehoff standing atop singing soothing about freedom.
Like I say, it is there: “Selamat Pagi Pak, nama saya Charles Anderson, saya wartawan di Jakarta Globe…” Shit. Blank. Nothing. “Uhhh” (At this stage thoughts spew forth(“why did I even try to speak Indonesian, you know fragmented Ingalese is your speciality(and why are you using so many inappropriate brackets?))) etc etc etc.
However if you manage to break a little through the concrete so to peek through the other side then you feel some progress is being made.
However in this case I have been dealt the double, maybe even triple whammy. The interviewee is Indonesian. But he speaks just enough English to make me think he warrants some time. Surely I can get something out of him. He also old and the barrier I am talking about could just as easily be senility as lack of English.

jakarta1-109However despite this, the trip is part of the fun. And the destination can be quite hilarious as it was in this case. I like to think being dropped in the middle of Jakarta with no knowledge of the intended destination, to meet an aging Indonesian journalist for comment about the continued disrepair of Jakarta’s old town, a challenge. That’s how I see it. And I suppose any challenge is positive, as long as you don’t crap your pants. Then you will look silly and smelly, a very awkward combination. But one very easily fallen into when you are dodging oncoming traffic. For some reason Jakartans don’t believe in pavements. They have roads sure, but the idea of walking on a separate piece of tarmac as the hundreds of thousands of cars, scooters, busses and bicycles, is something that never really caught on. Fine by me. I like heart attacks.

The resting place that never rests

jakarta1-0962An hour east of Jakarta lays Banter Gebang, the city’s largest rubbish dump. But it is not just the resting place of Jakarta’s unwanted garbage. It is home to thousands. Around the outskirts of the Rubbish Mountains are three villages, two schools, children playing, men laughing. This is their home. The millions of tonnes of plastics that flow into this place every week are their livelihood.
All over these mountains heavy machinery shifts putridity like a bulshy child playing with its food. Scampering around the diggers are hundreds of men and children with baskets on their backs, looking for their payload. The plastics. These workers are the shifters, the pushers and the lifeblood of a recycling economy unlike any you can imagine. The children are prized for the nimbleness and their fearlessness, but it is dangerous. Around the hills lie quagmires. Sumps in which anyone may fall into with little hope of return. No one knows how many might die on these slopes each year.
Down the road is the neighbourhood. Families live here. Families of three, four, five, six. It could be any of the many slum neighbourhoods around the city’s outskirts. But this one is built on the garbage collected down the road.
Across the alleys’ lie vast stretches of jandals. On first impression one wonders why anyone would leave hundreds of thousands of pairs of beach wears strewn accross the village. Then you realise if they were not there, you would sink into a floor of mud. So you tread carefully into these peoples’ homes.
They live in, out of, and on trash. “Apakabar” I ask middle-aged women sitting on her “porch.” Anywhere else in the world you might get a scornful look, as if the question of “how are you” predicates a certain intrusiveness on one’s home life. For this woman carrying her three year old child, the response is a grin. “Baik Baik.” She is doing well. And so are the rest of the villagers, you smile at them and they smile back. This is a community. One that functions off the mountain scramblers.
The villagers buy the plastics off them; the villagers wash the plastics then on-sell them to another recycler who might turn them into polystyrene bean bag beads or plastic water cups. But today is wet and it is hard to dry anything. So another middleman enters the fray, one with the capacity to dry.
The price is 7,000 rupiah (NZ) per kg of plastic. Today this man will shift 100kg. But the price varies and his cut is eaten into at any opportunity. “It is difficult to eat sometimes he says.” Today he is smiling and smoking.

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Venture further into the town, the materials change but the attitude is the same. Plastic bags are now tin cans, bottles. But always a smile. The inside of these homes are meagre. It has the feel of an army bunker. They are not at war but daily life is a daily struggle they deal with. This is their home.
A bunk bed houses three children and their parents. Old on top, young on the bottom. Their floor is jandals, their roof old jackets, blankets and minimal tarpaulin. But they are happy.
Outside it is a maze. And it is not long before I am lost in the neighbourhood. Ducking underneath makeshift washing lines and weaving around corners only to find myself in someone’s backyard. I smile awkwardly.

jakarta1-072“Selamat pagi” I say. “Pagi” comes the reply with a bigger smile. Two men are drinking coffee and snacking on some deep fried tofu. It is riddled with flies. They too are locals. “Enak?” I say. They nod vigorously and grin. It is apparently delicious. So I rip a piece off (with my right hand) and place it in my mouth. It is indeed “enak” but tomorrow will tell whether my digestive system agrees. You get used to that disagreement.
I always seem to be disorientated in this country, and faced with a village that has no written maps, no street signs and the only distinguishable land marks peaks of refuse and a couple of schools, I am forced to jump on the back of a passing motorbike and ask for a tour. Hopefully I remember a corner, a plastic bag, a smiling child. I do. They are everywhere.

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Let’s to the time warp

dsc_0295Yesterday we heard from the head of the Indonesian employer relations bureau who is one of the best known figures in Jakarta. In 1965 he was a student leader that helped bring General Suharto to power, and stood by him for 20 odd years until he saw that man who he championed as a harbinger of change and hope, turn to an authoritarian, nepotistic nut bar. He became more outspoken against the regime as a member of parliament and was exiled more than once for his views. Commenting on how he views his introduction to Indonesian politics from his vantage point now. “Back then was different it was idealistic. We had a failing economy, so all we wanted was change. Now I am more realistic but I try to keep some of that idealism from back then but you have to balance it.”
Indonesia is either perhaps the world’s most exceptional example of democratization or the most worrying. Following the fall of Suharto in 1998, the country went on a programme of the most wide spread change seen in almost any country. Now the there is some sort of election across the expanse of the archipelago every two weeks. There are parliamentary elections, regional authority elections, district elections, and of course presidential elections. There are 250 registered political parties, 38 of which will have some sort of showing in the next election.
It sounds very nice. Big bad Indonesia which only 10 years ago was killing students on the street. Tribal warfare was rampant in places like Kalimantan (Borneo) where ethnic Dayaks went on decapitation missions to seek out and destroy the transmigrant Madurese who moved to the area from Java in the 1930s. Riots and looting broke out, with civilians burning shopping malls sometimes with their own still left on the inside. Hundreds died in those days.
Now those same groupings, who found such disaffection with the system of the time, have representation across all facets of political life. The catch is, there is too much. Nothing gets done. We were spoken to by an expert in Indonesia’s political experience. “Sure nothing gets done but everyone is happy, they have representation, they have their voice heard. Sure no-one can agree but at least they can say what they think.” And so that strange beast of liberal democracy rolls on.
Not that Indonesia is that liberal. Renowned for its corruption in the Suharto years. What was known as a corrupt democracy has now become democratic corruption. Bribes for building permits which clear millions of acres of Borneo’s forest still pass hands. Still the only way you can avoid a fine for breaking the eclectic nature of Jakarta’s laws is by handing a police officer your identity card with sufficient monetary contact so to distract the officer to the fact that an offence ever really took place. Democracy indeed.

Someway to explaining

dscf4972And so I suppose the question remains: what am I actually doing here? Well it goes a little something like this (unfortunately I have not the time or energy to relate the experience in my traditional medium: rap.)
For the past week I have been experiencing life as an international student, quite the novelty not least because international students of Caucasian appearance are a little rarer than the New Zealand experience. Oh Boy I am noticed.
I have joined another 4 Kiwis and 28 Australians (I know) on a little excursion which has a lovely little acronym ACICIS. Better known as the Australian Consortium for In Country Indonesian Studies.sl3723093
So what am I doing here? A gooder question as any and one the 4 other NZers are reminded of as we are lectured to about the developing relationship between Indonesia and Australia (and New Zealand). Or take this comment from a visit to the Australian Embassy which is actually the largest and most comprehensive embassy of our Aussie compatriots anywhere in the world. “You sitting in front of us I hope are the future decision makers for Australia. Oh yea and New Zealand.” Nevertheless we have been made exceedingly welcome by our Trans Tasman counter-parts with many visits to the local warung spots and Bir Bintang sessions. We have also graciously been invited to the Embassy for Australia day. I am presently in negotiations with our diplomatic core to negotiate a Waitangi Day ceremony which would rival any “sausie Barbie aussie thing” which the Department of Foreign Affairs supposedly have planned. Between of course “dialoguing” with miscellaneous Indonesian interest groups.
We will spend the next two weeks studying at Atma Jaya University with a typical day starting something like this.
5:45am Andrew Ally and I are hopefully awakened in a pretty posh little spot near central Jakarta by a cacophony of cell phones rather than the daily Muslim call to prayer that kicks off quite smartly at about 4:45am. Indonesia is after all the largest Muslim country in the world.
Gather in the lobby of Century Park Atlet and greet the Aussies with an accent that is blatantly taking the piss but despite this, Ally and I still managed to convince a couple that we were actually Australian. Conversations included but were not limited to: Home and Away…actually that is about it.
We hit our language class at the university at 8am. That is of course not before negotiating the hazard of walking to the bus station. Apparently Jarkatans have not really embraced the idea of footpaths so we are blessed to share the road with cars, taksi, stupid amounts of scooters, and little blokes with trailers full of deciduous plants.sl372405
Strangely the early morning lessons are actually great fun. Taught by bubbly Indonesian women who shriek at some of the sentences that we manage to come up with. “Beau (an Australian with a great name) suka …..grrr ok I said my Bahasa Indonesia was tenous. But trust me it was classic. Cue giggles and rib shaking from the entire class. I would like to think it is because I am just so bloody hilarious but I have a feeling it is more because we are all wired on coffee (kopi), the remnants of last nights beer (bir bintang) and the effort it takes to hold in the delicate mixture of fried chicken and nasi goring that accompanied them.At 12:30 we finish lunch at head to the miscellany of lectures from all kinds of experts from all different fields. A pretty fascinating insight into the Indonesian political experience. This will go on for the next week and a half.
Then the real training begins I suppose, all 33 of us have been placed at media organizations spanning the entire sector. From Reuters to WWF, from Radio Republic Indonesia to my little home away from the Nelson Mail- the newly formed Jakarta Globe.
I will be there for 4 weeks and the idea of working in an environment where my grasp of the language is somewhat tenuous and my grasp of local issues even more so, is a little disconcerting. But is an idea that I am relishing.