Thursday, 11 April 2013

No Rose Tinted Memory for Thatcher


In light of the entirely predictable, spineless, tow-the-line reaction of many politicians and commentators to “Lady” Thatcher’s death, and of the media reaction to those celebrating her death, I feel it is time to pause writing about travelling in Indonesia in favour of a rant on this subject.

Barack Obama is of the opinion that the “world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty”
Nick Clegg thinks the fact that he “can shun the tenets of Thatcherism and yet still respect Margaret Thatcher is part of what was so remarkable about her”.

Short memory Barack?  Still respect her Nick?  Isn’t there a line somewhere that, once crossed, loses one the respect they may otherwise have earned, regardless of one’s subsequent death?  Gary Glitter crossed that line and lost the respect that his music – not that I liked it anyway – had earned him.  While not personally interested in seeing this as a time to party unlike some, it must be said that supporting the Apartheid regime in South Africa and providing political and military support to mass murdering dictators such as Chile’s General Pinochet, Indonesia’s General Suharto and Cambodia’s Pol Pot to name just a few constitutes stepping so far over said line that respect cannot be afforded to this horrible woman in death any more than in life, nor can she be remembered as “a champion of freedom and liberty”.  A more honest quote from those representing opposing political parties would be appreciated, such as this from my sister:
A wicked woman

“Margaret Thatcher is dead. She was Prime Minister from age 4 to 15 for me, so I spent my years growing up to loathe this woman. I know opinions are divided, mostly depending on where you grew up geographically and economically. Those born in the south east with a silver spoon no doubt saw boom and prosperity. But I grew up in the north east surrounded by poverty and saw the fallout from her actions. Families and communities were torn apart and many took decades to recover, if they did at all. For the good of the economy, eh? She taught me that the economy is more important than people to Conservatives. I've invested and expended so much mental energy in my adult life in loathing this woman and now she is gone forever. I don't quite know how I feel, but this is certainly momentous.”

Society has a bad habit of ignoring reality where a dead person is concerned.  Sure, families must grieve, but that doesn’t mean the history of the deceased person should be rewritten in a more positive light.  Why should someone be paid more respect in death than in life?  Should we hide the fact that we loathe everything they stood for and firmly believe they caused a staggering amount of human suffering?  Led by our mass media, our society really can show appalling double standards.  Remember Jade Goody, the reality TV star loved and hated for essentially being stupid?  The UK media and many of our citizens turned on her after she made racist remarks to a co contestant in an episode of Big Brother.  I was more of the opinion that she was ignorant than racist.  While not excusing racism, I hope most will agree that there is a big difference between a wealthy, educated racist such as BNP leader Nick Griffin inciting hatred, and a fool used to political incorrectness who puts her foot in it and whose main crime is that of ignorance.  What she said was unnecessary and offensive and her career was all but over because of it.  Not long after this, with her popularity at an all time low, she was diagnosed with cancer.  All of a sudden she was brave Jade. Her popularity then skyrocketed as her health deteriorated culminating in her death not long after, the nation feeling guilty for ever having said a bad word about her.  While not passing judgement on this, it does serve to highlight the point that our perception of individuals, often encouraged by our tabloids and televisions, changes if that person dies.  While tolerable it may be with regards to relatively harmless loudmouths like Jade Goody, this is lunacy when it comes to political leaders, especially those who were responsible for overwhelming human suffering as opposed to an ignorant racial slur.   While any civilized person will have sympathy for a deceased politician’s family, surely one shouldn’t forget how they truly behaved in life and in the Houses of Parliament.

So it is infuriating to see publications and politicians across the world amplifying this woman’s qualities (maybe I shouldn’t use a plural as the only quality I can think of is that she was strong willed), while brushing under the carpet the not insignificant evils of destroying communities, slashing funding of hospitals, redistributing wealth from the poor to the rich, providing economic and political support to a who’s who of twentieth century dictators and arming Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s terrifying regime, responsible for the death of two million people – around a fifth of its population – as it tried to regain power after being ousted in an operation led by neighbouring Vietnam.  That’s right.  Her government armed and provided military training to a regime which rivaled that of Hitler’s Nazi Party when it came to murdering innocent people.  And this was after the mass slaughter.  Maggie couldn’t claim to have armed them while being ignorant of their intentions.  No, they had already murdered 2 million people and she still did what she could to help them regain power.  Imagine if after Hitler had been ousted from power, the Nazis had retreated into the mountains and our government’s leader had provided arms and expertise to assist them in trying to take back power of Germany.  Would such glowing tributes be offered on their deathbed if they had been guilty of this, and would those fiercely critical of such a person be derided for speaking up?  Well that’s what Thatcher did for a similar regime on the other side of the world, and yet she is going out in style, with a multi million pound funeral paid for with money from the not so deep pockets of many of those from communities which she destroyed.

I am originally from Bishop Auckland, a small town in the north east of England situated near many coal mining communities whom Thatcher went to war on.  One tactic was to shut a mine, on which the livelihoods of those living close to it depended, and then kick them out of their homes.  It had to be done so the reasoning went because there weren’t any jobs. No longer could they live in the close-knit countryside community they had grown up in, with their shared history, extended families, local football teams and small businesses supporting one another. Many would have to move to Newton Aycliffe, a sparsely populated vast area comprising a large industrial estate and a town of scattered streets, often with many hundreds of metres of featureless grass and concrete between each cluster of houses where few people knew their neighbours as well as one did in the small towns and villages immediately to the north.  It didn’t cross her mind to provide a bus service for her citizens to travel the ten to fifteen miles from the pit villages into Aycliffe so they could keep their homes.  Or rather, it did, but she was bent on destroying human solidarity as well as the mines.  So people were forcibly evicted and scattered throughout factories in the new industrial estate, if they were lucky to even get another job.

I'm not interested in partying because of anyone’s death but considering her impact on the lives of so many people I am not surprised that many have chosen to do so.  It is a travesty that criticism of such celebration seems to deserve column inches in our newspapers more than criticism of Thatcher’s past policies.  What is the bigger evil?  People partying because a politician has died or a politician’s acts contributing to the death or misery of thousands, if not millions of people across the world?  I would like to challenge those who think such high spirits are in bad taste to ask themselves if they would condemn those who celebrated the death of Thatcher’s old friends General Pinochet and Saddam Hussein, and if not, why exactly should the goalposts be moved in this instance?  I have never celebrated the death of anyone and am not starting here, but I don’t think anyone should show restraint in shouting from the rooftops about what a callous failure of a human being this woman was, in order that history doesn’t allow us to look back with rose tinted spectacles and subsequently make the mistake of welcoming another one of her ilk into office again, if we haven’t already done so in David Cameron.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Rubbish and Jellyfish

Samalona island

On my recent holiday in South Sulawesi I decided to try snorkeling for the first time.  It may seem strange that a 31 year old, well travelled man living in the world’s coral epicenter had never been snorkeling before, but this is down to a phobia I have of being underwater, which probably developed after almost drowning as a child.  I can swim fine, but as soon as my face is submerged I feel panic and always have for as long as I can remember. Being fascinated by nature however I decided it was time to try snorkeling, and who knows in future maybe even diving too.  

I had been told by a friend about a beautiful, tiny island off the coast of Makassar called Samalona that was far enough away from the industrial port city to enjoy unpolluted waters.  I had to charter a boat to get there, which involved a bit of haggling.  I can’t blame the guy for trying, but powering a small motorboat while smoking cigarettes for the 20 minute crossing and back, hanging around on a beach for the 3 hours in between just isn't worth 400k rupiah (about 25 pounds) considering the cost of living here.  You can easily live off that amount for a week.  So I got him down to 250 and boarded his vessel. We embarked from a small and disgustingly polluted beach in Makassar's harbour.  I had to wait on the still docked boat for fifteen minutes while he went to get more gas for it.  Looking around I could see rubbish and decay everywhere, especially in the water when I looked over the edge.  It was as if someone drops their weekly groceries in the water every day, such was the volume of plastic, metal and card, complete with brands and logos. 

World's most beautiful beach?  Makassar harbour
Eventually we set off, arriving a short time later.  Being a popular tourist spot for those living in Makassar, a city similar in size to Glasgow, and for travelers using the city as a hub to see other parts of Sulawesi, I had the not unreasonable expectations that this little island would have one or two pleasant beachside cafes or restaurants where one could enjoy freshly caught seafood in pleasant surroundings.  I couldn't have been more disappointed. There were two places to eat, both in the centre of the island, both in run down shacks with dirty plastic seating.  You could take your food to the beach – the island takes less than a minute to walk from one side to the other, but all that was on offer was bog standard fried rice or instant noodles along with a variety of snacks often found in corner shops.  As for the pleasant surroundings, it seems that a consensus has been reached among the 5 or 6 families who live here that the randomly scattered presence of piles of corrugated iron and discarded gas bottles among other debris doesn't constitute a problem when trying to attract more visitors.  There are signs up asking readers in three different languages to keep the island clean, yet it doesn't seem the residents let alone the tourists understand them.  The people were very polite and friendly, and I really felt for a lovely woman in her fifties who offered me my noodles for free – I insisted on paying – when she scribbled down her e mail address and phone number explaining to me that there are rooms upstairs and wondered if I knew more people who wanted to visit her island.  It’s harsh, but apart from the snorkeling there is absolutely no reason to come here unless you already live in Makassar.  Considering divers have a plethora of destination choices here in Indonesia, most of which also offer a reasonable environment on land as well as a chance to see marine life, how could I possibly suggest to a friend that they spend any time here?

After eating I hired the snorkel equipment.  I really was pathetic. It is no doubt amusing for onlookers used to snorkeling to see an evidently inexperienced, half naked, lanky foreigner struggling to walk on the beach with his flippers on, having put them on too far away from the shoreline, almost falling over with every step, eventually turning around and completing the short journey walking backwards and almost falling over again.  Things went from bad to worse as I had no idea which way round to put the breathing apparatus in my mouth and after figuring it out and finally getting my head underwater the goggles kept slipping off, allowing water into my nose, which immediately brought out my phobia of drowning even though I was obviously in no real danger and only had to pop my head back above the water and adjust the mask.  Eventually I managed a degree of success, keeping my face under for six or seven stints of about 30 seconds each before the water came in again.  I later learned one possible reason for this was that I had a beard which makes it difficult for the apparatus to remain watertight. After only around five minutes of this hopeless flapping around, in which time I was briefly dazzled by an exotic array of brightly coloured cretins, I felt a sharp pain on my arm.  This coincided with the water getting in my mask for about the fifth time, and with the disappointment of the island itself I figured all I had to do now was passively hear ‘Someone Like You’ by Adele to make this a thoroughly unsuccessful day.  I put it down to sunburn I had suffered the day before, hoped it would go away, adjusted my mask and went back under.  Almost immediately I felt another pain, and then another, this time both in my back, thought ‘Fuck this’ and headed back to the comfort of the part beach part building materials dumping ground.  I had red spots on my back and arm where the pains were.  A concerned lady inspected me and said something in Indonesian, most of which I couldn't understand, but I did notice the words “long hair” while she was extending the length between her hands after gesticulating something circular.  With the clues I had to go on, I assumed that meant I had been stung by a jellyfish.  She then explained that it was painful at the time but it would soon be ok and I shouldn't worry.  So I got my things together, hopped back on the boat, with a fat freeloading (not that I minded) breast feeding mother who wanted a cheeky ride back to the mainland and left Samalona behind forever.  I wouldn't recommend it unless you are already living in Makassar and are a clean shaven experienced snorkeler who feels at home on a sun drenched building site.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

The Hands of History



To the north of the city of Makassar lies a region called Maros which features spectacular, forest covered vertical rock formations jutting out from the otherwise flat landscape.  It really will be difficult to appreciate any natural beauty the UK has to offer once I get home after witnessing South Sulawesi’s breathtaking landscapes, which also hide archaeological treasures.  I have always been fascinated by caves and have only recently had the opportunity to visit any.  So it was a welcome surprise when after arriving at Leang-leang national park to explore, a ranger led the way through an area suited to the set of a fantasy movie and then, unexpectedly, up several flights of metal stairs (the only blot on otherwise picturesque surroundings) attached to the side of a rock face and into a cave about a hundred metres up the side of a mountain.  I don’t know why I find such environments so intriguing, maybe it has something to do with the excitement most of us felt as children upon finding a secret area outdoors that can be used a ‘den’; or maybe because such areas are so untouched by humans that it almost feels like you’re on another planet.  We entered a small area which I assumed represented the total volume of the cave, but then were shown a gap about the size of an elongated, skinny man, so proceeded through it and found a much larger area mostly in darkness but with occasional spots of sunlight filtering down from the cracks in the rock scattered above.  There was also what I can only describe as a natural window in one wall of the cave looking out to the park below.  Among my sillier thoughts at this time was the idea that this would make an awesome place for the typical crowd found in a Newcastle based hippy’s house party to get the decks fired up and the people dancing.  Shortly after this, our guide climbed onto a ledge and pointed at the rock above him.  Like a fool it took me about twenty seconds to properly notice what he was pointing at, initially thinking he was simply showing me an interesting texture of rock, which it was.  Then when I did notice the hands, as you can see in the picture, 
I wondered how it had taken me so long to notice them.  These hand prints are over 5000 years old.  I find that mind boggling.  Whose are these hands, what is the story of their lives and their people?  What was happening here, thousands of years before the Roman Empire and on the other side of the world?  In another cave not far from this one, we were also shown shells embedded in the rock, implying that this place, far above sea level, and inland, had once been underwater.  One can easily experience a momentary appreciation of just how tiny our lives really are when faced with relics so old, and when also considering that even such a large amount of time represents many times less than one percent of the time life has been on earth.  This trip was all made possible by a very kind woman from  Makassar called Chicha who had messaged me on couchsurfing, a website for travellers to meet each other after I had posted a request for guidance.  I didn’t really know where places like this were, but she picked me up  at 6am after I had travelled overnight for ten hours, took me to meet her family who cooked for me, before being my guide, and then dropping me off in the city later that evening.  It seems there are good people who just want to help all over the world.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Tana Toraja - Beauty, Cruelty, Friendliness and Negligence

Very trippy houses

With no strict itinerary and a cheap promo ticket to South Sulawesi purchased many weeks ago, I decided to head for Tana Toraja after arriving at Makassar airport.  It is most well known for holding 3 day funeral ceremonies.  Sounds grim I know, but after hearing a few testimonies and reading a few bits and pieces, it seemed like it would be a quite unique event in a place also renowned for a temperate climate and stunning natural beauty.  So off I went on the super comfy night bus for ten hours. Eight quid for seats twice as large as you get on the UK’s inappropriately titled National “Express”, with double the legroom thrown in, and the ability to recline many parts of the seat.  It was practically an adjustable bed.  An additional bonus came when I stumbled across a tin shack selling premium spirits at normal prices next to the bus station.  It takes special contacts to get hold of any familiar spirits for less than fifty pounds a bottle in Indonesia. In normal circumstances you can’t even buy them anywhere apart from in nightclubs. So I got a bottle of Smirnoff for about fifteen pounds when I was only looking for some peanuts.

I’m quite an experienced traveler now, so I immediately smell a rat when a middle aged guy with a weathered face and a cold, distant look in his eye offers to sort me out a package including hotel, food, driver, guide etc.  They’re always going to charge more than it is worth and you don’t even get to see the hotel beforehand. So I took the number of the man offering me just this kind of deal as soon as I arrived at the airport, said “Yes mate, well aye” in Indonesian, left the airport and turned off my phone. The best way always seems to be to just rock up and see what’s around.  I found a guide as soon as I got off the bus in Toraja who took me to the funeral ceremony at 9am after I had checked into a hotel.   I was a bit disappointed if I am honest.  I had expected a variety of ceremonial curiosities, and in fairness, had I stayed longer or even arrived the day before who knows what I would have seen.  Most of what I did see was a variety of animal cruelty.

  However, all in the world is not so simple.  It would be unfair of me to impose Western values on a people firstly incredibly hospitable and kind and then also largely disconnected from the moral and intellectual advancements made in lands foreign from their own over the last hundred years or so.  In light of these mixed feelings, I looked on feeling morbid curiosity combined with pity for the animals but also a sense of respect for those prepared to rear animals ultimately to sacrifice them, who are able to stomach the sight of such an action, unlike us Brits who take shiny, packaged fillets from the shelves with not even a nanosecond of thought for the life that the fillet was once a part of.  So yeah, basically lots of animals were sacrificed.  Lots of pigs to be precise – I saw at least thirty pigs either dead, almost dead, being killed or waiting to be killed in the hour or two I was there, with the unfortunate buffalo seen wandering around in line to be slaughtered the next day.  However this is not in itself cruelty.  Well… it could be argued that taking a life of anything is as cruel as it gets right?  I naturally feel more empathy towards animal’s feelings than I do toward the commonly held view that people should eat meat because it is natural.  But that’s just me.  I can’t help feeling sad when I see any suffering, and just because it is a pig and not a person being slaughtered doesn’t mean my stomach doesn’t turn at the thought of its life, its one and only life, being brought to an end.    The cruelty however was before the pigs’ death.  They had their trotters tied together and were unable to do anything other than wriggle on their side, often while watching one of their kin only a meter away being eviscerated.  When the inevitable periodic desperate yelps occurred, eager locals would pick up the bound pig by the trotters and throw it randomly to one side, sometimes giving it a kick for good measure, to generous jovial applause from those nearby.  This is what I found really sad.  I just wanted them all to be killed quickly.  Nevertheless, if I was to judge these people as cruel based on standards set in the west when only a generation or so ago such standards didn’t exist; us being little different to those we now condemn, be that in our treatment of animals or women or any person or thing that isn’t a straight, Christian, white male, then frankly, I’d be a dick.

Next stop on the tour was a cockfight.  I had no idea this was part of the itinerary.  Maybe it wasn’t and my guide just stumbled across it and thought I’d be interested.  I guess I was, again in a morbidly fascinated kind of way.  As an aside, I find it quite odd that cultures worlds apart with no influence on one another both practice the same horrible ‘sport’.  It isn’t open or widespread like here in Toraja – in fact I hope it doesn’t happen at all anymore but it’s no secret that gambling over cockfighting has and probably still goes on in the UK and probably many other countries.  For those of you not in the know, this is how it works. 2 men hold one chicken each with one hand around their bodies and another firmly around their necks.  They then force the chicken’s heads into close proximity with one another until they get angry and start pecking.  Then the men take turns presenting their chicken to the other – in effect all tied up; its beak being held now too so the other chicken can peck away furiously, and then vice versa until both chickens are in full on fight mode.  Then they are released and continue the script as written for them, while someone walks around taking bets on which one will get pecked to death first.  Although I won’t judge (I think crowd psychology is not entirely blameless here with both the pigs and the chickens - considering the carnival atmosphere and the important social nature of the event it only takes a couple of people to do something cruel and it can become accepted as normal behavior), or maybe because I won’t judge, I find it quite fascinating to note how my and no doubt many other’s standards in any issue can be so flexible depending on the context of what is before us.  If I had seen these events in the UK, I would have been disgusted to put it mildly.  Yet the harsh truth is that we in the UK are just better at disguising our cruelty.  There is little doubt that chickens are the most abused animal on earth, most of them living their lives in their own shit, developing arthritis in spaces barely big enough to fit their bodies and being force fed unnatural and carefully planned diets designed to aide maximum growth as rapidly as possible regardless of their suffering, while we happily eat their breasts, our eyes and morals shielded from the horrors that they suffer by the nice packaging.  Yet many who happily snap up cheap supermarket meat would have been horrified by what I saw today. I’m not justifying it, because frankly I didn’t like what I saw, but then I also thought that these people for the most part have their animals roaming free range before these unfortunate episodes occur and that their culture is so far removed from anything I have ever been a part of that I should play no part other than that of curious observer.  The fact that these events take place at funerals underlines this stance.  Imagine if you will, at a wake in the Red Lion after the death of your uncle, a fascinated Inuit on a multi stop trip round the UK popped in and tried to stop anyone from eating pork scratchings because the pigs had suffered.  It wouldn’t be so different.  He’d probably get knocked out and would deserve it.

The same morning I learned of the existence of a caste system here, not unlike that of the “untouchables” in India.  The higher the caste of the unfortunate person whose passing is being mourned, the more elaborate the celebration.  The inequalities permeate life as well as death though, with those on the bottom rung of the social ladder apparently being denied the most basic of courtesy and respect by those higher up according to my guide.  He used the following analogy, seeming not at all unimpressed by this harsh reality, despite seeming a very nice chap otherwise.  Imagine if someone gave you a durian (the world’s smelliest fruit) and said it was a tomato.  You would know straight away that it was a durian because of the smell.  He basically said that even if someone from a lower caste lied about their background or makes a lot of money, you would still be able to tell them apart because they would stink.  He actually referred to them as “the slave caste,” a caste which if one is unfortunate enough to be born into, there is no escape. From which caste my guide was I do not know.  Those in the highest caste get priority in their places of burial, the photo shown here is one of many rows of tombs in a cliff face. 
I was told that to be buried here it costs one hundred million rupiah, which at ten thousand US$ seems expensive considering the cost of labour here is so cheap, but maybe it’s the exclusivity of the location and the fact that it symbolizes which caste a deceased person is from which makes it so expensive.  Regardless of the background, I found these burial sites to be so beautiful, intriguing and tragic all at once, especially when I saw one tomb with a young man’s photo outside of it.  I also came across many smaller burial sites with two or three tombs embedded rocks surrounded by rice paddies.  The bodies are transported to their tombs from the preceding ceremonies in miniaturized versions of batak houses which are only used once and remain in the vicinity of the deceased’s tomb.  From a purely aesthetic perspective this is such an interesting tradition, in which intricately designed receptacles, each with its own story, dot the forested and agricultural land all around.  One wonders, were the population to dramatically increase if this would be practical to maintain, though at the moment settlements are very sparsely spread throughout the region.

Animal cruelty and cultural issues aside, the scenery here has made my jaw drop like never before.  It’s not unlike Sumatra, but without obvious palm oil plantation encroachment on the nature.  Having said that, I’ve only covered a radius of around 30km, so I wouldn’t be surprised if such a problem was just around the corner.  During my excursion yesterday, following the gore-fest I was taken to a cafĂ© made of wood situated on a corner of a winding mountain road which benefits from unobstructed views stretching endlessly into the distance.  The problem is that, as I’m sure those who haven’t developed skills in the art of photography will relate to, ordinary cameras just can’t capture the magic. 
Let down by my camera or my photography (lack of) skills
The following day I rented a motorbike without a guide and enjoyed driving around without a plan on some of the worst roads imaginable but surrounded by lush forest and occasional picturesque villages.  John Lennon spoke of “four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire”.  He should have seen the roads here.  Potholes that could kill motorcyclists are everywhere, although the fact they are everywhere make them unlikely to kill, as drivers are always on their guard, reluctant to accelerate beyond 20kph unless they can see a long stretch of road ahead.  On one occasion, seeing one of the many potholes in the middle of the road with a diameter like a bicycle wheel and noticing plants growing out of it, I stopped to have a look at its depth, and was amazed to see it was a hole leading to an underground stream about a metre below.  That’s when I headed back to the hotel for a swim, but when I was sat in my shorts at the side of the pool I noticed a subtle but large enough layer of dirt on the surface of the water, with a few dead insects thrown in, to put me off.  This country is so bad for that.  Come on!  You have a pool in your hotel, you’re a business, clean the pool!  Indonesia certainly is a fascinating and stunningly beautiful place, and the people  for the most part absurdly polite, helpful and friendly, but it has so many simple problems it needs to fix, though then it wouldn't be Indonesia.  One member the hotel staff remarked "Indonesians rule time, but Europeans are ruled by time."  What a brilliant way to sum it up! However it masks the fact that what he is saying is that very little gets done in Indonesia, and in fairness, too much gets done in England.  "You there! Yes you! No customers?  Polish the whisky bottles again!"  No chance of that happening around here.  There's a happy medium out there somewhere, I hope I can find it one day, because the unprofessionalism and inefficiency I encounter almost every day here is no longer funny,  yet I don't like being fined fifty quid for forgetting to bring  my wheelie bin back into the house in the UK.  Utopia next please.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

You Know You’ve Been here too Long When…



An English friend of mine recently remarked “You know you've been in Indonesia too long when McDonald’s runs out of burgers, and you’re not even surprised”. Psychologist and author Professor Richard Wiseman concluded after a series of quirky experiments that Indonesia has the third slowest pace of life in the world.  It’s pretty evident.  I must stress, I have been overwhelmed by the friendliness, kindness and flexibility (not in the yoga sense, but in the sense of not having rules for the sake of rules) of the people, which has been a breath of fresh air having grown tired of the UK’s anal officialdom and bakery’s that won’t change a ten pound note for you unless you buy something you don’t want.  So, I have mostly good things to say about the people, but those of you who know me well know that I’m better at having a rant about stuff that riles me than pleasantly identifying things, places and people that are functioning properly.
Sorry, got no burgers left.

As someone who doesn't eat beef, McDonald’s running out of burgers doesn't really affect me, but many other aspects of this fascinating country, if they don’t affect me, certainly make me briefly furious for about three or four seconds before I swiftly and happily remind myself of the fact that I am one man from probably the luckiest demographic and generation in humanity’s history and that I have an excellent, fun, relaxing and well paid job that affords me a very enviable lifestyle in a beautiful archipelago (well… a sprawling, polluted dirty mess of a city in an otherwise beautiful archipelago). 

Far and away the most infuriating thing I see on a daily basis is parents on a motorcycle wearing helmets, with a child sandwiched between them without one.  When I incredulously protest about this to anyone in earshot, I am often met with a giggle by an Indonesian who explains that the law insists on adults wearing helmets, but children don’t have to.  Rather than appeasing me, this serves to highlight an even more disturbing fact – that some lawmakers in this country are evidently too stupid to realise that children’s heads are actually made from the same materials as an adult’s, and are just as vulnerable to serious injury or death should they rocket head first into a billboard after a failed attempt by their careless father to squeeze between two trucks at speed just to gain a few meters.  Furthermore, it is at best worrying and at worst pathetic that some people feel that if the law doesn't force them to consider the safety of their children in dangerous situations, parental concern doesn't seem to fill the void, leaving children’s heads dangerously exposed on roads full of impatient and reckless drivers.  Always wanting to see the best in people, if I notice adults and their children both without helmets, I may give the parents the benefit of the doubt and assume them to be too poor (there are some seriously poor people round here), but for those who have found the money to protect their own heads but not their kids’? Please.

Stupid, negligent adults with vulnerable children
Here are some other, less danger-related things that make me sing “I (We) gotta get outta this place, If it’s the last thing I (we) ever do”
  • Hearing the chorus from “My heart will go on” by Celine Dion in my head over and over, occasionally accompanied by a vision of the French-Canadian heavenly crow squawking from the tip of an asteroid, arms outstretched as if drenching the whole universe in her endless glory.  In the attempt by some quarters of this society to become as Western as possible regardless of the actual merits of doing so, Celine Dion is the staple soundtrack of all cinema foyers.  To make matters worse, my apartment’s management has included this ditty on the instrumental muzak casio-keyboard-built-in-demo style play list of about ten songs which are infuriatingly piped toward the ears of anyone unfortunate enough to have to wait a few minutes for an elevator.  I don’t take kindly to this.  Bemused locals no doubt wonder why they occasionally see a really tall foreigner grimacing with his palms pressed against his ears while ordering the lift to hurry up.  It seems this awful song appeals to those social climbers who cringingly denounce anything from their home country as being unworthy (be that music, movies or even interior design styles) while embracing anything advertised to them as being cool in Europe or America without question.  Some of these types think a warung (a super cheap food stall at the side of the road) is beneath them.  They deserve better.  They deserve McDonald’s, Celine Dion and freaky blue contact lenses that make them look more like aliens than Caucasians.  I think they need to have a look at themselves.
  • Seeing said folk hanging out in McDonald’s. It seems to be a cool place to hang out if you’ve got a bit more money and want to be seen in a happening place, as is KFC.  Thor is going to put the obesity hammer down on this society soon.  I wonder if such customers realise that while some of them feel they are showing their social status by eating Western foods, such ‘restaurants’ in the UK are (not discounting the sizable occasional customer base of educated middle class folk enjoying a guilty pleasure) mostly frequented by less educated poor people, the kind that many McDonald’s customers here try to avoid by not visiting warungs.
  •   Hearing “Someone like you” by Adele.  I have an attitude problem when it comes to music.  I don’t actually consider it a problem, but it seems many others do.  I feel that, despite the endless amount of musical styles and genres available to our ears, music can broadly be lumped into two huge categories. The first is music written purely for the purpose of expressing emotion, be it fun, happiness, sadness, nostalgia, or anything else.  Within this huge category there many songs that do nothing for me, but I hold no principled objection to them as I feel that as long as they fall into this first category they have merit.  Who am I to judge someone’s artistic output if they created a piece of work to honestly satisfy their creative needs?  The second category is music written for the sole purpose of making money.  Songs in this category cannot be performed by an individual or group not deemed marketable by a big business, or they simply wouldn’t make as much money.  I’m not saying it’s impossible to like these songs; fair play to you if you do, but I don’t even consider them to be music.  I know that, by definition of course they are, but most are forgotten after a short period of time because they are basically the product of one big mass marketing exercise and not of human emotion, meaning they likely have no longevity and are exposed as being devoid of any soul once whatever trend they were part of is consigned to history.  I’m not going to pretend that I know exactly where the line is to be drawn between these two categories, and that there isn’t a degree of overlap, but as a general rule,  we can hear from the beautiful emotive nature of songs such as ‘Life on Mars’ by David Bowie, and the passionate anger of ‘Killing in the Name’ by Rage Against the Machine that their music videos do not require the presence of sexy women writhing naked on the bonnet of a Mercedes to sell; likewise it is hard to imagine a Justin Bieber song’s sales not suffering were it to be sung by Thom Yorke of Radiohead instead.  I’ve gone off on a tangent here, but the point is I do feel Adele’s “Someone Like You” does have merit. It sounds like a song from the heart. She is not in my eye, a physically attractive woman.  She would not be able to crawl around in a thong singing a commercial dance song in the way other successful singers do.  The problem I have is that it’s so overplayed.  I never liked it in the first place, partly due to the association I have of it with heartbreak, as it was all over the airwaves in the UK after I suffered a particularly intense break up.  I then departed to Indonesia where, almost 18 months on, I still hear it almost every day. In taxis, in the mall, in warungs, cafes, bars and nightclubs.  It is particularly irritating on a Friday or Saturday night out.  Let’s have some fun! Let’s have some James Brown!  No, let’s put on a tragic song about heartbreak.  And let’s make sure we put it on again an hour later, and again an hour after that.
  • Unexpectedly crunching an unidentifiable gritty substance while eating an otherwise normal meal. Or sometimes biting into a small stone.  This seems a uniquely Indonesian problem. It happens in around eight out of ten meals.  Everything is just too relaxed here.  Bit of grit in your dinner?  Ah, stop whining, get it down you.  It even happens when I cook!  I suspect this is because Indonesia’s relaxed attitude to life extends to the rice paddies, meaning that when the rice is packed, it isn’t done with a great degree of diligence, allowing grit and stones to be hidden within. That’s my hypothesis. Further down the chain I cook my dinner and find a stone in my teeth.
  • Hearing impatient drivers beeping at you to get a move on before the lights have even turned to green. This even happens a hundred metres or so from the lights.  People here seem to think that the guys at the front are blind and need to be made aware that the light will soon change from red to green.  Even when they can see that the traffic at the front of the queue has started moving, they will hold down their horns for five seconds at a time. The horn on a car or motorbike has many potential meanings in Surabaya, most of which can be simplified to “I’m a dick”. The only other uses of the horn are when people are understandably reacting to someone being a total dick by pressing their horn. You are driving at a good speed in busy traffic.  A dick is desperately trying to squeeze in front of you, even though there is barely any space.  “Beep beep!”  I reply with “Beep!” which means, “Sorry dick, I’m not letting you in.”  You’re trying to pull out into a very busy road at the first sign of a gap in traffic.  Seeing said gap, a motorcyclist puts his foot down, in such a hurry to join the traffic jam a few hundred metres further ahead that he is unwilling to slow down to let me onto the road.  As I edge out, he accelerates and holds his horn down.  This means “I’m a maaaasssive dick and you better realise it or I’ll take us both out in a display of kamikaze bravado”.  I saw a horrible crash a few weeks ago.  Some dicks in football colours decided to ignore the red light and inch across the city’s busiest crossroads, because after all they are really cool and it is only fair that everyone stop for them.  An unfortunate young woman with misplaced confidence in the green light before her eyes smashed straight into the side of a massive dick and unfortunately came out the worse of the two.  The dick got up and was promptly apprehended by an onlooking policeman, who hadn’t seen fit to bother intervening until there was an accident.  I don’t know if the woman survived.  Even with a serious crash scene in front of them in the middle of the junction, dicks announce their presence all around.  “Beep! Get out of my way, I’m a dick, I have to get past!”  “Beep! Beep!  Don’t die on the floor in front of me, I’m a dick!”
  • An imbecile trying to overtake you on the side that you have been indicating on for the last five seconds, just as you make the turn.  I angrily swear in my almost lost Bishop Auckland accent, calling them all sorts that they don’t understand.
  • Being told your order is unavailable, 45 minutes after placing it, just as all your friends' meals arrive.  And no, this is not when the restaurant is busy, this is standard practise. “Would you like to choose something different sir?”  “I would like to have chosen something different 45 minutes ago, but I guess that would have needed common sense and basic interaction between kitchen and waiting staff”.  Way too much to expect of course.
  •  Being served cow skin amongst your vegetables or even cow snout after explaining that you don’t eat meat.  “But it isn’t meat!” A nose isn’t meat!  Hey, I don’t eat meat, but that skin, and that nose, gimme it!
  •  You order a simple bowl of instant noodles at an outdoor street cafe and the woman who serves it to you (I hesitate to use the word waitress – she probably owns the place, she serves customers, takes naps behind the window display of food and practically lives there), without having been asked, cracks a raw egg into your bowl to garnish. Cheers.
  • You order toasted chocolate spread bread.  Despite no mention of such a conflicting ingredient, grated cheese is served between the two slices of bread with the chocolate spread.
  • You pick up a menu in a fancy restaurant.  The prices, the font and the overall layout of the menu imply that the food will be good.  You read a description of what sounds like an interesting and probably delicious pizza (if you like fish) – ‘stonebaked pizza topped with salmon and tuna, garnished with rocket and olive oil and topped with a….’ until you get to the end of the description… ‘Kraft single(!)’.  Wow, you guys really know what you’re doing.  Stick to making Indonesian food.  You’re good at that, and it’s nice.
  •  A taxi driver sees you coming, scrambles  around in his glove box to find a CD, and puts on what I imagine is ‘The Best (or worst) of Bryan Adams’, seemingly for the foreigner’s benefit.  Can’t fault the man’s willingness to please, but he’d do me less harm if he drove off with my luggage while I was using the ATM than forcing me to listen to such corny heart-pop. “Take me as I am, Take my life, I would give it all, I would sacrifice”.  Bryan! You need to find a new woman for two reasons.  Firstly, if she’s the kind of woman that needs you to sacrifice yourself to keep her interested, well mate, that’s s&m gone too far in my book.  Secondly, based on my own life experiences, no woman out there can possibly be attracted to such a self pitying stance of desperation.  You should have written her a funk tune man.  But you can’t do that now.  You’ve done the damage with this tune already.  Move onto to the next target, a clean slate. Good luck.
  • Your internet or utilities are cut off without warning because of a late payment.  No, it doesn’t cross their mind to simply call you or put a note through your door (these services are all provided in house at my apartment complex) requesting payment in which case I would pay immediately as I always have enough in the bank to do so.

I’ll probably add more to this list as ever more incredibly illogical events catch my eye.   Hopefully they won’t and I can spend my remaining time here in a state of calm.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Would You Like Wifi with Your Emergency Fluid Infusion Sir?


Having left the UK not long after the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats formed a ruling coalition; I have watched the government’s plans for the NHS unfold from afar with disapproval.  Not that I fully understand them of course, but I have learned over the years that if politicians are using what I call ‘Tony Blair hands’ while masking the fact that they are saying very little of substance by using carefully structured sentences with an unnatural attention paid to linguistics, body language and tone of voice (it is all one big popularity contest after all), then the issue is probably being clouded, often for the purpose of big business being able to get a cut of some pie or other.  Whether it is being termed ‘restructuring’, a ‘public-private partnership’ or ‘a choice based NHS’, it seems clear that in a nutshell, in part or in full, the NHS is being sold off and equality of access to healthcare regardless of income will likely soon become a thing of the past.  I had the misfortune to experience a very serious food poisoning incident here in Indonesia just a few days ago.  With the above in mind, here is a little insight into what seems a fully privatized health service, apparently free from government intervention, something David Cameron seems keen on in light of his ‘Big Society’ mantra.

I started feeling rather unwell at 8pm on Thursday night, while waiting in Surabaya airport for a flight to Jakarta. Yet to visit, I had booked an extra day off work so that I could spend a long weekend in Indonesia’s capital.  Feeling mild discomfort in my stomach has been a fairly common occurrence over the years.  It usually clears up after an hour or two, but I had an uneasy feeling this was something that had to be dealt with. I proceeded to the waiting room half an hour before my flight was due to depart, where I started to feel nauseous and began salivating a little.  This usually only happens to me when I’ve had way too much to drink the night before; as soon as I start salivating I know it’s bathroom time.  I went to men’s room, stood over the toilet waiting for the inevitable but nothing happened despite escalating feelings of bloating and nausea. Considering I was about to join the queue to board my flight I thought it best to force the issue so I put my fingers near the back of my mouth and swiftly began to bark soup.  After being sick intermittently for five minutes I felt much better and figured I’d be fine from then on.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  I felt ok as I showed my boarding pass and continued along the corridor to the stairs down to the runway.  Then, while I was queuing at the bottom of the makeshift staircase leading up to the aircraft door the nausea returned. I boarded the flight and got to my seat as fast as possible and tried to will the sickness away (never works).  Realising it was crunch time again I had to scramble past my bemused fellow passengers who were still putting their bags in the overhead locker and made it to a sink just in time, remaining there throughout the safety announcements as the plane taxied along the runaway, making it back to my seat just in time for takeoff after repeated knocks on the toilet door from the cabin crew insisting I returned to my seat to belt up. Then it really kicked in when the flight took off. As soon as the seatbelt light went off I was back to the bathroom, where I would spend the entire journey of around an hour sat on the toilet with my face in the sink, at first solids and then soon endless amounts of water gushing out of both ends. I have never lost even a fraction of that amount of water out of my body in such a short space of time.  It was terrifying and was the first time while on an aircraft, being a nervous flier, that I worried more about the consequences of something other than a crash. A fever soon followed as I managed to return to my seat for landing, and was then immediately back to the toilet while everyone left the aircraft.  The last one off the plane, I resolved to go straight to a hospital but was pleasantly surprised to find a health clinic in the airport.  My initial feeling of calm soon turned to frustration and rage as I realized what lazy, incompetent staff I was faced with.  I have a reasonable amount of Indonesian language skills, and made it very clear that I was very cold (I was actually worried about hypothermia or pneumonia such were the chills I was feeling but that I didn’t know how to communicate) and probably had serious food poisoning.  It didn’t occur to them to get me a blanket of any kind, or even to improvise, even after I repeated what I had already said and was clearly shaking.   Nor did they show any urgency whatsoever.  The first doctor, a man around my age simply nodded his head and left the room.  A few minutes later an old woman appeared.  Again I asked for a blanket and she just kept asking me what my name was.  I also said I needed antibiotics, but that I would die if I took penicillin.  So she asked me what antibiotics I wanted to buy, and offered me Amoxycillin.  I asked for clarification that it wasn’t penicillin and she seemed irritated at my questioning, not appreciating how high the stakes were for me if she got this one wrong.  She offered it to me again, but my gut told me not to trust this negligent idiot with a bad attitude so I turned it down, even though, I am not exaggerating, I felt it not entirely unlikely that I would fail to make it through the night.  I could only stand or walk for a minute at a time without feeling dizzy and needing to sit down, I was weak.  I could barely carry my modest suitcase.  I was dehydrated and felt like I was getting worse not better. I later found out that Amoxycillin does indeed contain penicillin and therefore likely would have finished me off had I taken it.  That this useless excuse of a doctor is employed at a clinic in the arrivals lounge of the airport of the world’s second largest city is typical of the kind of things Indonesia really needs to address.  I bought a couple of bottles of water and jumped in a taxi to the nearest hospital, projectile vomiting out of its window at regular intervals and somehow managing not to shit myself before arrival.  Finally in an actual hospital with good doctors, nurses and equipment, I was put on a drip for rehydration and stayed there until late Friday night before going to my hotel. Not until after a whole load more confusion though.

Barely anyone in the hospital spoke any English, and my limited Indonesian turned out not to be enough as I was to discover that I not only lack hospital related vocabulary but that they also speak in a mad Jakartan dialect with a crazy accent.  Shockingly, before what was clearly urgently needed treatment started, I was presented with a folder of potential bed types to choose from, ranging from 'standard' - a bed in a shared ward, up to 'executive' - private room with en suite shower, flatscreen tv, wifi etc.  I was thinking "This isn't a hotel, I don't give a fuck, just help me!"  Most of this was in a language I didn't understand, both in terms of the folder itself and the babble spouted by the woman holding it, all while I was laid on a stretcher vomiting intermittently and struggling to retain consciousness.  After many attempts communicating with my broken Indonesian, I eventually understood that whatever room you chose, you still got the same level of medical attention and number of nurses etc. This was all I really wanted to know, so I made the cheapest choice. The more expensive choices were simply for more comfort and entertainment.  I then had to provide my card for them to take a deposit of 2,500,000 rupiah, which equates to about 160 pounds, to guarantee I could pay for whatever treatment I needed.  Only when the receptionist returned with assurances that my deposit had been taken did the ball start rolling.  I was then asked a range of puzzling questions about what treatment I wanted.  Again, I must stress, for every question I was asked I understood barely 20% of what was being said, all while vomiting and occasionally losing consciousness.  Then the doctor tried in her broken English, asking me if I would like a white blood cell count, a red blood cell count, a check of my cholesterol among many other procedures.  These are trick questions.  They are designed to take advantage of someone needing urgent help.  For each procedure there is an extra charge, and to the patient, it is not always clear which treatments you actually need, and which you are being encouraged to agree to purely to increase the value of your final bill upon leaving the hospital, and likely the doctor’s commission.  This game has been played with me once before, when one day I developed an unknown and debilitating pain in my right heel.  I went to a different hospital, in Surabaya, where I live and work.  Fortunately on that day the doctor assigned to me had good English, and I was neither in immediate danger nor finding it difficult to speak without vomiting.  In this instance, after agreeing to a cholesterol check and a couple of other ‘products’, I then realized what was happening and was able to receive clarification, only after repeated questioning, about what treatment I actually needed.  Sure it is desirable, to tick every box on a list in front of us and subsequently (in an ideal situation) receive a clean bill of health, but at what financial cost?  I intend to do this occasionally as I get older for peace of mind, but certainly not every time I get sick, in a healthcare system where checking for each individual detail has its own separate charge.  So, as I lay on a stretcher at the end of my physical and mental tethers, having been taken to boiling point both by my fever and the cold, money focused attitude to my treatment shown by the hospital staff, I eventually managed to communicate that I wanted only the treatment that I needed to recover from the ailment I had, and that I wanted to know how much the total bill would be including the bed for the night and any medication (you would think the word “total” would in itself dictate that specifying individual charges were not necessary, but apparently not).  I was assured 600,000 rupiah would be the figure (approximately forty pounds).  Upon checking out the next day I was given a bill for more than three times that amount.  I hadn’t been told when providing a stool sample deemed necessary for determining which course of antibiotics I was to be prescribed, that a laboratory analysis would cost 800,000 rupiah, and that every tablet and bowl of liquid rice or slice of bread I had been given had also been added to my bill, at a cost that would not look out of place on a London restaurant menu.
Unable to access healthcare.  
Considering that by the time I provided the aforementioned sample, it was well into the next day and I had recovered dramatically, had I known about the outrageous charge involved I would have declined the service.  Relative to the cost of living in Indonesia, for which I will use the cost of a convenient ready to eat meal as a guide, 800 000 rupiah is astronomical, and that was for the stool sample analysis alone.  A take away pizza in the UK usually costs around six pounds.  In Indonesia, chicken fried rice is about eighty pence. 800 000 rupiah equates to approximately fifty-five pounds.  Imagine if you had to pay over four hundred pounds in Newcastle or Manchester for someone to analyse your excrement in a process which only took a couple of hours, and that that represented only about forty percent of your total hospital bill after a bout of food poisoning.  To put it further in perspective, the average shop assistant in a mall, or waiter or other unskilled worker usually earns around 1 million rupiah per month, while those off the radar of officialdom – street vendors and rickshaw drivers for example, earn even less.  I have no way of knowing how serious my condition was on Thursday night.  It certainly seemed it.  Maybe if I were a poor Indonesian shopkeeper I would have simply passed out outside the airport and woke up the next day covered in shit and vomit and eventually recovered. Maybe my number would have been up.  Either way I certainly wouldn’t have been able to afford hospital treatment.

What you have read above is an insight into how largely unrestricted private healthcare functions. Sure, if you have the money, you’ll likely get very good treatment that you need, possibly along with a whole lot of treatment you don’t need in a building where parts of which at times resemble the lobby of a five star hotel (for what purpose?).  On the other hand, have very little money and you’ll receive the worst treatment; have no money at all and you’re someone else’s problem.  As David Cameron spouts about giving people the chance to choose the treatment option that suits them best, I would like to ask him whether or not when he goes to an expensive restaurant he informs the chef exactly how to season his steak.  Does he choose how much brake fluid the mechanic should add to his vehicle when it is serviced?  Does he ask us, the people who elected him, how to run a government?  I am a musician and an English teacher; you may be a journalist, a waiter, a butcher, a baker or a candlestick maker.  No parent chooses what method I should use to teach their child. None of us are in any position to choose the best medical treatment available to us. Did I have a clue what antibiotic I needed, other than that it had to be free from penicillin?  Did I want the choice of beds and entertainment when in such an urgent condition? We need a doctor to tell us and swiftly treat us with the best remedy, just as we expect a Prime Minister to run a government or a chef to make us a beautiful meal. You may choose the best shirt or hairstyle with a party in mind.  The best, in these instances represents opinion and can be chosen.  Medical treatment is very different.  Published medical trials have determined what the best treatment is for every condition as a matter of fact.  Where there are two or more procedures whose test results have shown similar levels of success, it is not us, the patients, who should choose between them; a choice obsolete anyway as we would probably only be able to afford one of them.  This responsibility lies of course with the doctor, who will take into consideration any allergies we have, our medical history, our metabolism and any experience the doctor has gained using such medication throughout their career.  In a fully taxpayer funded public health service, where staff are given bonuses not according to how much medication they sell but instead for doing their job to the best of their ability,  the public can have faith that regardless of their income, if they can be returned to full health, they will be.  Failure of such a service should not result in selling it off to the highest bidder, but should instead result in replacement of failing staff in key positions, better incentives in the right places to drive better performance and the provision of a larger budget as a matter of public spending priority (it wouldn’t amount to a lot of money) where necessary to overcome what should be simple challenges like bed shortages or waiting lists before allowing for the funding of the construction of what is essentially a mall on the ground floor, as is the case at the publicly funded New Victoria Wing of the Royal Victoria Infirmary hospital in Newcastle Upon Tyne.  Nearby Bishop Auckland recently lost its accident and emergency department altogether, leaving those in life or death situations having to travel ten miles for urgent treatment.  Its children’s ward was also closed in 2009.  Those mall funds would surely have been put to better use there.  There is absolutely no reason why a public health service cannot perform better and fairer than a private one if it is under the stewardship of a strong government department who spends money in the right places and who generously rewards its staff for performing well, while being ruthless with those who don’t.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Language Divides Rich from Poor


Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city, whose urban agglomeration consists of anywhere between 3 and 9 million people depending on where you draw the borders, is a place where decadent wealth and abject poverty sit side by side.  Unlike many cities in Europe, where the poorest of the poor are tucked away into sprawling estates out of sight, often separated from the wealth of outlying suburbs by busy highways while tourists see the shiny exterior of a wealthy city center, this is a place where poverty is on display, and wealth is often hidden.  Although at the far western boundaries of the city there lies a millionaire’s club (or in Surabaya’s case, multi trillionaire’s club – one million rupiah is the equivalent of just sixty-seven pounds), strewn with several acre properties and golf courses, throughout most of it those with wealth live out of sight, their houses almost invisible to visitors behind an intimidating variety of dangerous fences and high walls, inviting any would-be burglar to impale themselves on metal spikes should they try their luck. On one side of these walls and fences are gardens and properties that would be fit for a tycoon’s tropical holiday retreat.  On the other side, centimeters away are dozens of homeless people living, working and sleeping in the midst of unbearable heat and exhaust fumes, in touching distance of wealth they can only dream of.  I am often struck by this contrast when I walk to work on crumbling footpaths, dodging holes big enough for my entire body to fall into as a gate opens, a car emerges and a dream home is revealed for a few seconds before being hidden away once more.
When I first arrived here, it seemed unlikely that many people had any money because I could see poor people everywhere yet those with money weren’t so easily visible.  After attempting to buy food and drink on several occasions at a warung (makeshift shelters that line most streets and typically sell three or four different kinds of food), I realized I was going to have to accelerate my rate of learning Indonesian, especially as a vegetarian.  There are only so many times one can walk into the midst of a handful of people who already find you, the foreigner in a city off the tourist track, fascinating and amusing, and attempt to draw a chicken, a cow and a pig while offering as many negative hand signals as possible, only to be served goat and be laughed at when you pay the bill with a sigh and leave the untouched meal on the bench.  Things were made more complicated when I swapped the dusty impoverished streets for the bright lights of the mall (There is no city center as such, but there are lots of malls), needing a new belt before my first day at work.  All around me I could see advertisements competing for my attention and to my surprise, most were written in English.  I felt a weight off my shoulders, anticipating an easier task ahead.  Had I not been an unusually thin man this may have been the case.  Most Indonesians can explain prices in English, but because belts were not available in my size, and the language capabilities of the staff were not as the advertisements all around me had led me to believe, a very surreal experience followed.  It seemed that the only words of English that the giggling sextet of uniformed young ladies could muster were, ‘Hello Mister’, ‘handsome’ and ‘nervous’.  I can’t deny I was flattered and incredibly amused as they took turns attempting to shorten and refasten the belt without losing all composure in a fit of laughter and blushes.  Fifteen minutes later I finally had a belt that fit, and as I left the shop and said ‘Terima Kasih’, one of the staff replied ‘We won’t forget you Mister’, as if I had just rescued her grandmother from a burning building. 
When my thoughts eventually left that surreal situation behind later that night, a puzzling question bothered me. Why is it that there are so many advertisements displayed in shops, malls, restaurants and on billboards all around the city, if most of the population can’t understand them?  What marketer would want to alienate their target audience by preaching in a language customers can’t read?
Having spent 7 months since then teaching English, seeing more of the city, learning to speak Indonesian, meeting and making friends with locals and other foreigners like me and noticing those beautiful houses hidden away behind the poverty, I have come to realize that there are - albeit far outnumbered by those in poverty - people with a lot of wealth: people who can speak English. Education is a privilege in Indonesia.  If you are lucky enough to have one, the chances are that you and your family have some money to spend on gadgets, jewelry and sportswear. You will also be able to speak English.  If you can’t, then it stands to reason that you don’t have any disposable income, because your family couldn’t afford you an education.
 Poor people who sell fried rice on street corners for less than what someone in the UK would spend on a chocolate bar have barely enough to survive and often have many mouths to feed.  What little income they do have is spent using the services of other poor people – those who put new heels on old shoes, stitch handmade clothes or do laundry.  Those people in turn buy fried rice on street corners. Slightly higher up the social ladder are those who work in shops selling branded goods which are advertised in English.  They are typically paid around one million rupiah a month, about sixty seven pounds, in a country where branded goods retail at around the same price as they do in the UK. Almost all of both groups have a well below average grasp of English and little if any money to spend.

            Then you have those living centimeters away yet worlds apart from all of the above.  Those who have private drivers on call twenty four hours a day, frequently fly to popular holiday destinations around Asia and beyond, live in mansions and consume all the most fashionable brands. In a country where a generation of young people are eager to be seen embracing Western brands, movies, diets and values, inevitably the English language becomes cool. If those who have money to spend understand it, why market your brand to anyone else?