Here Thar Be Monsters!

Read in over 149 countries and 17 languages. Now at Augenguy.com! The original Indonesia Bureau brings you news and opinion with an IndoTex® flavor Monday thru Friday at 9a WIB (8p CST), from the other side of the argument to the other side of the planet. Be sure to check out Radio Far Side. Send comments_to luap.jkt@gmail.com, and tell all your friends. Sampai jumpa, y'all!

22.6.10

Hawg Heaven

Indonesia is, by far, the motorcycling-est place I've ever been. The average red light in Jakarta makes Sturgess look like a distant wanna-be in the world of motor-rallies.

This post was inspired by seeing a Jakarta record of five people on a motorcycle yesterday afternoon. The all-time record still belongs to Balikpapan, with a whopping six souls on a single bike: two kids on the running board, dad at the helm, mom on the tail, one kid between them, and a babe-in-arms. But record-setting numbers of people are only the beginning of the story. Motorcycles in Indonesia are workhorses, as well as necessities.

Jakarta is a highly compact city. In area, it is about one-quarter the size of Houston, Texas, but it has a stable population of about 12 million, with more coming every day. Since Jakarta is the center of commerce in Indonesia, many folks set out to find fame and fortune in this ant pile. Because of the sheer density of people and buildings, traffic here is a round-the-clock affair that not even Rome or Mexico City can outmatch. The density of vehicles on the road means a motorcycle is the most efficient way to get around. It is also cheap to buy and operate, features which appeal to the average Indonesian. Furthermore, in accidents, the law favors the smaller vehicle, so a surviving cyclist has a better than even chance of collecting on the deal.

Traffic in Jakarta is amazing. Streets are narrow and follow no discernible grid or logic. Traffic control is achieved primarily through the use of U-turns and one-way streets, which means you can end up driving several kilometers to cross the street. Where there is a red light, a fair number of folks simply ignore it. Consequently, Jakarta spends the hours between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m. in a sort of fluid grid-lock. Traffic moves, but you'd get a bigger thrill from watching molasses flow in January.

Further enhancing the effect is the fact that the outer fringes of every street have a constant flow of push-carts, bicycles and pedestrians (sidewalks, if they exist, are a nightmare obstacle course, so most prefer the relative smoothness of the street). Topping all of these factors is the Indonesian philosophy of driving, which is to get from Point A to Point B without coming to a full and complete stop along the way.

These factors combine to make a motorcycle the most efficient means of travel across the city, and indeed, acros the nation. A bike is able to weave in and out of traffic, use sidewalks and pedestrian cross-overs, slide the wrong way down the edge of busy streets, and get cheaper and easier parking. A motorcycle can make the trip across town in half the time and a fraction of the cost of a taxi or car. Every red light looks like a shotgun start at a Moto-X event, as the bikes wend and weave their way to the front of the line and roar out ahead of the pack as soon as the light turns the palest shade of green. As a pedestrian, you do not want to be caught in the crosswalk at this point.

Indonesians are so cheap, they'd make a Scotsman blush. They can pinch a penny and turn it into a dollar, where a Scotsman only gets a dime. For this reason, motorcycles are the mode of choice. Entry into the market will set you back about $1,000, versus 15 times that for a low-end car. The norm is a 125cc bike, with the occasional 150, and even the rare Harley or two. However, over 150 the taxes and insurance rates go up steeply. For the most part, no one carries liability. Insurance is only used to cover vehicles while they are being paid off. In an accident, there is no "later," you usually pay cash to the injured party on the spot.

Tags last 10 years with an annual renewal fee. The annual inspection, such as it is, determines whether you show up to pay the fee or not. This puts bikes at a price-point that even an Indonesian can love, while providing all the benefits of personal mobility. Therefore, the motorcycle has become the workhorse of Indonesian life.

In addition to carrying obscene numbers of people on a single bike, Indonesians use them for just about everything from trucks to mobile shops. I have seen 30-foot bamboo poles, car windshields, mobile kitchens, and hardware stores all mounted on motorcycles. In the case of large deliveries, one man drives and the other holds the object, such as a windshield, lumber, parcels, and other unwieldy things. Others have their shops or wares built onto the back of the bike, such as a stove and storage for cooking, or bread boxes, pizza delivery and, in the case of some, an entire selection of brooms, mops, brushes, buckets and spray bottles. This latter example comes in a jumble a full six feet high and four feet wide; an impossible arrangement that looks ready to explode into a housewife's dream at any moment.

I have seen live goats and ducks tied rather comically onto the backs of bikes. One example took me several takes to fully appreciate. He had 10 ducks bundled and draped over the seat like saddlebags, with all the heads facing rear. As he drove down the street, the back of the bike seemed to have Dali-esque streamers coming off the back. You had to be there.

Another attraction for motorcycles is Indonesian law, which favors the smaller vehicle in any altercation. For this reason, a biker stands to fair better in any accident short of bicycle or pedestrian, assuming he or she survives the encounter. Since the norm is to pay damages in cash at the scene, odds are on the side of the motorcycle. In the case of bike-on-bike wrecks, it usually leads to one of Indonesia's favorite spectator sports: Who's Fault Is It? Large crowds gather, witnesses are paid, sides are taken, and the show is on. For normally stoic Indonesians, this is about as emotional as things get outside the national badminton tournament.

Accidents occur frequently. Hardly a month goes by that you don't get news of someone in the hospital or dying from a crash. I've witnessed and heard of some rather horrific screw-ups. It's unavoidable, given the sheer volume and chaos of Jakarta traffic. At its best, driving here is one of the finest forms of enlightened anarchy I have ever seen. At one time, I was convinced that traffic in Rome was the most insane contests I had witnessed, but Jakarta eclipses Rome by orders of magnitude. Things that in Texas would get you shot instantly are commonplace here, and for the most part, Indonesians are amazingly dispassionate about it all. Sure, there's horn blowing that makes the World Cup look quiet, but it is done not in anger or frustration, but because that's just the way things are done.

I've never witnessed road-rage, even in the most extreme cases. Operating a vehicle here, and even just walking, requires a level of detachment that borders on Zen perfection. Driving in Jakarta requires a skill and patience that is unheard of in American life. Through all of the chaos and smoke, the motorcycle putts along, the center of Indonesian transportation and commerce. Without it, life here would slam to a halt.

For that reason, I nominate Indonesia as Hawg Heaven...the biker's dream.

16.6.10

Bammy-Bots Untie!

Bammy Revives Cap n Trade
Bammy Wants Clean Energy
Bammy Calls Oil Spill New 9/11
Bammy Drives Merica Into the Dirt

Merica finally has what it deserves, what its public schools have spent so long trying to create: The Articulate Idiot.

Yes, folks, it walks, it talks, it makes smooth sounds...but what is happening between the ears turns Eisteinian space-time on it head. It is so warped that not even a black hole can escape the profound singularity of stupidity. The gravitational pull of this level of idiocy is sucking the entire world down with it, and yet, there are still people who look to this perverse clown for hope and change.

Dubya was a mouth breathing, knuckle dragging cretin, but Bammy is a new class of stupid. Future generations, if we are lucky enough to have any after this joker is finished, will need a new word to describe this kind of suave meat-puppet.

Just glancing at the headlines linked above should be enough to make you throw up your hands and give up. There's nothing left to fight for, if this is the quality of leader Merica puts up. I mean, with an extinction level event happening in the backyard, Bammy wants to revive Cap-n-Trade, push for clean energy and compare the problem to 9/11. We should all be clapping our hands against our foreheads in sheer amazement that someone this vacuous even has involuntary biological functions.

So, without further ado, let's look at some of Bammy's "ideas":

Revive Cap-n-Trade Legislation
This onerous pile of claptrap, carried to its logical conclusion, would seek to limit procreation (we are carbon-based life forms), regulate respiration (we exhale carbon dioxide), create carbon poker chips, and give the banksters a new game of chance in the hopes of keeping the market/casino alive. Hell, Mars' atmosphere is more than 90% carbon dioxide, but I don't hear anyone arguing that planet is in imminent danger of overheating. Furthermore, the whole thing is premised on a now-defunct theory that was shown to be a scam by Climategate. Exactly how this will stop and remediate the worst environmental disaster in recorded history is not presented to us, but it does push some emotional hot buttons that the media have spent years installing and propagandizing. In other words, this is a classic misdirection gambit.

Push For Clean Energy
Great. Bammy wants to implements a policy, which might lead to legislation, which could create incentives to possibly push research, which could produce new clean energy sources, which might be adopted by the general public. Based on years worth of observation, I estimate this solution to take about 40-50 years to have an effect. Meanwhile, the oil is spewing into the ocean NOW. Next...

Oil Spill Is Like 9/11
So let me get this straight...Bammy is saying that BP are terrorists that have been aided and abetted by factions of the federal government to create this disaster in order to achieve certain long-term socio-economic goals? Or is he pushing emotional hot buttons again so that we won't look behind his curtain and see what an inept buffoon he is? I mean, come on...a hydrocarbon volcano 3,000 meters below the surface, belching tons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico daily is not the same as imploding a couple of Manhattan buildings and calling it terrorism. Not by a long shot. At best, this spill will cause mass re-locations and the condemnation of large swaths of coastal lands and sensitive habitats for decades to come. At worst, we will all be dead in about 10-20 years. And this compares in what way with the deliberate destruction of three buildings in Hew York City, that barely a decade later only affects the lives of the inhabitants and soldiers dying in illegal wars of aggression in far off lands. Nope, sorry Bammy, ain't buyin' it. Back to the drawing board. You do know what a drawing board is, right? Good little Bammy.

This nincompoop actually thinks we are stupid enough to buy this load of crap. On the other hand, the Merican people DID elect the swine. Perhaps when I finish my preparations for TEOTWAWKI, I'll take a minute to laugh and say, "I told you so." Bammy's enough to make me miss Nixon. At least Nixon was a genuine intellectual. Bammy was elected because he could read a prompter after several hours of practice and pronounce big words on cue. Not exactly the curriculum vitae of a deep thinker.

If Bammy was a leader, he would have galvanized the population into action, directed resources efficiently, applied overkill efforts, and all within the first week. We're now rounding the second month, he just met with the chairman of BP, plays golf daily, and pushes hot buttons and propagandizes in lieu of constructive mobilization. Either he is so dense that he doesn't know a planet-killing disaster when he sees one, or he is purposefully bungling the mop-up at the behest of the real leadership of Merica. Neither option is particularly palatable.

Meanwhile, an enormous cloud of oil is rounding Florida and will soon foul the Atlantic and then Europe. In a few years, it will cover West Africa and head for India. With this level of disaster, why are we wasting time and effort on Cap-n-Trade and comparisons to past criminal acts? The time for worrying about clean energy sources was decades ago. But, let's not gum up the discussion with simple facts, shall we? Keep the rubes distracted and they won't notice the planet dying. Nothing like sounds policy and action, I always say.

My colleague, George Ure, over at UrbanSurvival, makes an excellent point. Once the coastal areas are fouled and uninhabitable, all those people will go somewhere else, and when they do, they will stop paying the mortgages on those properties. Let's add that up, shall we? Mass displacement of people+gross devaluation of formerly recreational properties+large scale collapse of economic sectors=Oops!

So, immediate destruction of some great recreational real estate, followed by the irreversible loss of wildlife habitats, followed by a global underwater death cloud, followed by collapse of the food chain, followed by mass extinction.

Check, check, check. Yup, pass the Cap-n-Trade and catch ya at the 19th hole, Bammy. The man's like Swiss cheese, no matter how you slice him, he's still full of holes.

So long and thanks for all the fish.

15.6.10

Sickhomeness

One of the best trilogies (in 5 parts) of all time is 'Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.' Of course, that's my opinion, but since it's my blog, that's all that matters. In the opening pages, Douglas Adams notes that the farther away from home a man gets, the stranger the look in his eye, and when Arthur looked into Ford's eyes, it nearly made him insane.

There is truth in that observation. You see it when you live overseas in the eyes of fellow adventurers. It is most extreme here on The Far Side. Part of it is due to the longing one feels for those comfort things that define 'home.' No matter how much one likes one's new home, or how comfortable one feels, or even how similar the new digs are to the old, there are still things missing that, when one closes one's eyes, one pictures in one's mind and calls them 'home.' Doesn't one?

I thought I would compile a short list of the things I miss about Texas. Texas is a great place, don't get me wrong, but it's been taken over by yankee carpetbaggers and Americans, so just as well I'm not there. Still, in my heart there are things that I miss and wish I could have here. So here goes. Feel free to play at home and see how your notes compare.

1. My daughter: 'Nuff said.
2. Blue Northers: the deathly calm before the storm, the Wall o' Weather headin' atcha, the wild wind and lightning, the sudden change from hot and muggy to cool and fresh. Nothing in the world like that.
3. Fat Texas Burritos: a massive tortilla, slathered with refried beans, taco meat, sour cream, tomatoes and lettuce, and piled with cheese. Pardon me while I wipe the drool off my keyboard.
4. Pork Loin: Mom's loin roast with garlic, rosemary and black pepper, crisp on the outside and tender inside, with a little brown gravy and new potatoes on the side.
5. West Texas: The Great Emptiness...driving down hiway 235 with a hundred miles of nothing on the longest, straightest road I've ever seen, doing 120 mph with the top down. And don't forget the endless horizon...
6. Fresh Mowed Lawn: lying on the grass, listening to the cicadas, the sprinkler chick-chick-chicking, a cold beer or seven in the cooler next to the hammock.
7. Elbow Room: ah, the feeling of being able to stretch out and knowing no one but the federal government is watching you. Nothing like a little privacy and 10 minutes' worth of solitude.
8. The Shooting Range: going down to the range on Saturday afternoon to pop off a few founds. Hell just having a gun in the house would be nice.
9. Quiet: Islam is the noisiest religion ever invented. I'd love to wake up with an alarm clock one day and not all the hollering at 4am.
10. Leg Room: I'd love to get in a car, on a bus or walk down the street and know that everything was laid out for someone 6'-2" tall.

Don't get me wrong, I love living on The Far Side. This is my new home and I am very happy here, but if I could just bring a few extra things, it would be perfect. Texas is pretty close to Heaven, but it's been infested with 'Merikans who think they have some claim to bung up the place.

I don't think anyone ever truly acclimates to a place that isn't home. The things that brought you comfort and joy as a kid stick in your subconscious and act like a homing beacon. There's a lot of things that override that impulse, but it is there, none-the-less, whispering in the background, tempting you with the sights, smells and sounds of home.

They say you can never go home. It is an imaginary place that no longer exists, if it ever did. To a certain extent, that's true. Home is what we call the memories that we cherish and the ideals we hold. Home is what we call the expected, even though the unexpected finds us anywhere. Perhaps there is some magic ratio of expected to unexpected that reaches a threshold called 'home.'

In any case, the farther one gets from home, as Douglas noted, the stranger the look in a man's eyes. Perhaps that is what we call the eyes of age, because even time takes us far from home, though the body stays planted in one spot. In that respect, home is truly where the heart is.

Kinda like baseball...you don't always make it home again, and even if you do, you always come from the opposite direction.

14.6.10

Ex-Patois

"After a year, ya know pretty much everything you need to live here," my companion said.

I thought for a minute and that was pretty much true. By then, you should know enough of the language and culture to get on with life. You should also have built up enough of a network to be able to call folks for a night out, a connection or advice in a jam.

Jim is a Canadian who's lived in Jakarta for 14 years, gone through a couple of wives, sired a kid or two. He's figured out his niche and does pretty well at it. He's a networking fool, too. He has joined a business club, goes to various ex-pat functions and helps reasonably bright newbies get linked in as part of building his future prospects.

There are about 5,000 westerners living in Indonesia at any given time, most in Jakarta. The vast majority are transfers here working for companies that pay them their regular salary plus hazard pay (Indonesia is considered a hazardous assignment, LOL!) plus free house, car, driver, and domestic staff. Those who don't have "trailer wives" (spouses who move with their husband) will often get a 'contract wife,' a local girl who performs all the functions of a wife in consideration of a generous payment to her family. These guys work here for a year or two, then go home. While here, they live like kings and give westerners a bad name and a reputation for being insanely rich, which makes life somewhat difficult for the rest of us poor joes.

There's a contingent of guys like me, who are living here long-term, having left their home country for various reasons: better health care (!), better women, more opportunity, and so on. Many of the ones I meet have been here past the 10 year mark, speak Indonesian fluently (and usually a couple of other dialects), have married locals and started families, and run their own businesses. They stick together, trading infornation, contacts and opportunities.

"Most start with teaching, but it's a trap if you don't break out," my companion said. "It's a good place to start while you get your sea-legs, as it were," he added. I nodded in agreement.


"The best thing is to get yourself a good lawyer. Here's a card," he offered. "If you set it up right at the beginning, you can avoid a lot of hassle and set some targets. Just makes your life easier in the long run."

Most of the ex-pats I know get married within 6 months of stepping off the plane. In about two years, they regret it because they hadn't learned all the ins and outs yet. My companion has an ex and a current, with whom he is not happy. Another I know is trying to divorce his first after two years. All married Javanese and all wish they had waited longer. They always ask why, after two and a half years, I haven't fallen into the trap yet. Many convert to Islam because they are told that they must in order to marry a muslim girl. It is true that Indonesia doesn't allow marriages between mixed religions, but had they waied, they would have learned that culturally, the woman MUST follow her husband.

Some came and set up PMAs first thing and are now regretting it. A PMA is the only type of company that a foreigner is allowed to wholly own. It is very expensive, highly taxed and closely watched. Other options include a PT, or public corporation, a CV or partnership, and a Yayasan, or non-profit. They must be significantly owned by Indonesians and have varying rules for capitalization.

For those who wait and watch before diving in, there is a fine alternative. Once you have found a good and trustworthy wife (they do exist here), then you set up a corporation together, which then employs you, thus giving you a spouse sponsorship, which is cheaper, and providing a work visa that is more stable far less prone to the vagaries of a third-party employer. If you marry well and trust your spouse, this can be a very lucrative and satisfying route, as well as reducing stress.

A good lawyer can be as important as a good wife. Good legal advice, a well-planned course of action and someone to call in a jam will make your life so much easier. Formulating a good plan of attack with at least two backups would seem like common sense, but we all know that 'common sense' is an oxymoron, right? That approach to life works at home, and is virtually de rigeur when moving abroad independently.

"The biggest mistake bule make here is thinking they are at home," my mate cautioned. "They jump in and fall into the same traps over and over again. I see it all the time," he added, a look for painful memory flashing across his eyes.

When I got off the plane, I had a plan, but I also had two backups. I'm on Plan B now. After two and a half years, I have avoided the first major pitfall, I haven't yet married. It's easy to do. Indonesian women ate nothing like western women. They are polite, submissive, deferential, and all the things bule women have tossed out the window on the road to feminism. However, Indonesian women are conniving and will take advantage of unsuspecting foreigners, and their families are lined up behind them. A bad lawyer will charge you more than Rp.40,000,000, and drag things through the courts for ages. A good one will charge you Rp.2,000,000, and hand you a form letter to fill in the blanks and mail to the estranged spouse.

Nothing like a little education and planning before you dive. There's a lot of rocks below and good aim will reduce the chance of injury.

Ex-pat and transnational living can be very rewarding for those with a little intestinal fortitude, a good plan and the discipline to wait a while before jumping in to unknown waters.

Full sails and smooth seas!

13.6.10

To Blindly Go...

It was 4:30pm, on April 1st, 2009, at the tender age of 47 that I went stark blind.

I had just finished a class on the ground floor and was climbing the flight of stairs to go to the teacher's lounge. By the time I reached the top, I felt completely drained and a cold sweat had broken out on my forehead. My body felt disconnected. It was not unlike the onset of a severe case of the flu. When I reached the room, I laid down in the corner to get a minute's rest before the next class. I closed my eyes for five minutes, and that was the last time I saw anything clearly.

When I opened my eyes, everything looked overexposed. I could see some detail in the room, but outside the windows was a bright, gray fog with little or no detail.

I went home by taxi with an escort from the school. By 8pm, I was profoundly blind. the world was completely black with on curious artifact: light sources appeared blacker than black, and LCD and CRT monitors looked like dimly glowing purple rectangles hovering in space.

That night, I ate a hamburger and cola with some friends, which later that night I tossed all over the bedroom. I didn't feel sick, per se, but nothing seemed to stay down.

The next morning, I was at the emergency room. I received a general check-up and they took blood. A complete list of everything I had eaten and drunk for the past week was assembled. Cursory tests showed I was, indeed, blind. I could follow a flashlight, because as a light source, it appeared blacker than black. I could also detect very high contrast objects, such as a person, moving in front of a brightly lit background. No details and definition, I could just tell there was something moving in the foreground. The bloodtest showed a slightly elevated level of uric acid, but was otherwise unremarkable. My blood pressure was abnormally low, but not dangerously so.

My friends conferred and decided I needed to go to a specialized clinic, so it was on to Mata Nusantara. There were more tests, more blood. Direct imaging revealed that the core of the optic nerve was pale, as if the blood supply had been shut down. There was a point of contention: MS didn't usually attack both eyes at the same time, and methyl alcohol poisoning usually involved coma. Furthermore, it had been several days since I had drunk any alcohol, so that seemed unlikely.

On to AINI. AINI is considered the foremost eye center in Indonesia. Most tests and more consultation, with more history given. The doctor made a determination that it was MS and ordered the standard initial intervention: heavy doses of anabolic steroids. I was checked into a ward and prepped for IV. Shortly after, I began five days of high-dose steroids. My legs burned like fire and there didn't seem to be any immediate relief. I lay there, unable to read, watch TV or do anything to while away the hours, except think.

I thought about being blind for the rest of my life. I thought about having to go home. I thought about living in a foreign country with a profound handicap. I thought about the loss of my career, which was centered on my ability to see. I thought about my daughter and whether she faced the same fate due to genetics. I thought about all the things I would never see again.

I thanked God that I often stopped to smell the roses. I always enjoyed a good sun rise and sunset. I spent a lot of time just looking at things and absorbing them. I always tried to stop and enjoy a beautiful sight, a work of art, a pleasing face. i didn't regret not doing that before I lost my sight, but I regretted that I wouldn't enjoy it again.

I pictured myself padding around my mother's house for the rest of my life, needing a stick to guide me. I imagined measuring off the path to the nearest watering hole where I could pass my remaining life listening to the world go by. I tried to list all the things I could do with no sight. That one sense had been my source of income for my entire life, and now I would have to retool and rethink everything.

I was dismissed from AINI after five days and given a strict regimine of steroid pills to take several times a day. My friends brought me home to my apartment and i settled in for the long haul. It was April and my apartment was paid through December, so no worries there. The sole question was, what to do. For entertainment, I listened to movies. 'Iron Man' and 'Get Smart' became my companions, since I had already watched them several times and knew the pictures that went with the story. I sat on the sofa and started thinking...hard. What now?

On day ten, I opened my eyes and was startled. There, at the very corner of my left eye, was light. More than that, there was information. I could actually see something. it wasn't much, but a match is a miracle in the dark! Over the next two weeks, it was exciting to wake up! Every day brought with it new sight. More and more of my eyes were clearing. After two weeks, I could actually go out on the balcony and see houses and cars and trees. No color, mind you, but my peripheral vision was returning. Slowly the darkness cleared, beginning at the outside and moving inwards. There was a sharp demarcation across my vision between light and dark. It was enough that I could leave the apartment and go down to the shops, or sit by the pool or just do anything but sit and think.

By the end of April, I could see pretty well...maybe 70% of normal. I couldn't watch TV, but I could use a computer. Something about the frequency of light from a CRT and an LCD allows me to see one, but not the other. My central vision was sharp, but black-and-white. My peripheral vision had some color. I could see the color blue quite well and even vividly, red a good bit less, and brown, green and yellow were gone. The inside half of my right eye was still black, but I could see well enough to get around independently. I couldn't really cook, though. I couldn't see the color or quality of the food, so I burned everything or ran the risk of eating bad vegetables.

By this time, I had gone to The Jakarta Eye Clinic. I was referred for a CT scan, which came back with a small white area on the occipital lobe. There was speculation that it was a brain tumor; a neural fibroma. I was then referred for a 64-slice MRI of my entire head. The results showed that the white area was an artifect in the film, and not a cancer. I breathed again. But, there was no other obvious reason for my blindness: no stoke, no hemorrhage, nothing. By now the diagnosis was closing in on MS, though there was one more test to be sure, because MS rarely affects both eyes at the same time. I had stopped the steroids and my sight had settled around 60% of original. Though I could read a standard eye chart down to the smallest detail, the area of my vision that was clear was very small, and there was still no color in my central vision.

The last test was another MRI. This time, it was a high-resolution scan from the base of my nose to the center of my forehead, covering the eyes, nerves and occipital region of my brain. It was conclusive. There were small legions on the optic nerves characteristic of MS. It seems that MS is an auto-immune malfunction that attacks the protective sheath around nerves. The senses are particularly susceptible, because they are the most delicate. Turns out I had signs for many years. My hearing problems were most likely a symptom, as well, and not just damage from years of being a rock and roll stagehand, or working in a scene shop without hearing protection. Various aches and pains could also be attributed to early symptoms. Would it have made anu difference if I had known earlier? Probably not.

I was given the option of beginning courses of various pills (ah, western medicine). All came with onerous side-effects, life-long use and no guarantees.

"No thanks."

I have since been using a strict vitamin and mineral regimen, used acupuncture and maintained a healthy, well-rounded diet. The results have been mixed. I can now perceive a wider range of colors, but the overall quality and resolution of my vision has degraded. Not a lot, but noticeable. I have a hard time seeing at night. What I see are yellowish-white lights floating in a sea of black with objects very close to me being at least partially visible.

I can't really see faces, at least not in passing. If I talk to someone, I can find their eyes, but I can't see the rest of their face, so I have to guess their mood and level of seriousness. I am frequently wrong. I can look at the mouth, but then it takes a second to find the eyes again. It is quite difficult to hold a conversation when you can't see someone's face. It is one reason I have always hated the telephone. Now, all of my interactions are like talking on the phone.

I have a very limited range of acuity. There are what amounts to small areas in my central vision where I can see sharply. At about a foot from my face, it is about three inches wide. In general, I see the world as if looking through amber colored glass, smeared with Vasoline while watching a noisy (pre-cable) TV station. I often get amazing geometric patterns of sharp color and shapes floating in my vision, as it looking at stained glass windows. They block my vision and I can't see anything beyond them. My vision changes daily, sometimes a little better, sometimes a little worse. I can read quite well if I use a blue LED light, which enhances the contrast of the text and paper. I have a very hard time discerning objects that have similar contrast values, and my sight is pretty much two-dimensional. Stairs scare the hell out of me, especially in a country where the rise and run of the treads can vary significantly on a single flight.

I have developed a strange walk where I don't put weight on the leading foot until I am sure where it is going. Several good spills, including falling in a ditch, taught me that. I have also developed a stoop. Being Indonesia, the general population here is a full head shorter than me, and overhead objects are lowered accordingly. I have whacked my forehead good and proper enough times to learn that lesson. When walking, especially at night, I often have to stop to assess the way in front of me, or in the alternative, pick someone in a crowd going the same way and shadow them. Even still, objects often surprise me as they materialize directly in front of me. Crossing a busy street is a nightmare. I have to listen carefully for motor sounds where the dopler pitch is rising and coming in my general direction. I can't see the objects until they are about five yards from me; too late in the case of fast moving traffic.

Among other effects, the center three toes on both feet have gone numb. It's more annoying than anything else. I get strange transient pains, not in the muscles, but deep in the nerves, that last for a time and then go away. All in all, things could be much worse, but there's plenty of room for improvement. I have eschewed western pill-pushers for more traditional approaches. Herbs and vitamins, massage, acupuncture, and other approaches are far less damaging and cheaper than pharma. There's a chance I may have more attacks, or there's a chance I may never have another.

In the meantime, I have learned Braille and the Braille typewriter. I have converted my computer to voice-activation and have gotten software that reads the screen to me. Though I don't yet need it, there is no time like the present to prepare. I refuse to be a victim and will maintain as much independence as I am safely able. It's really amazing how fast the body adjusts and makes accommodation for changes in function.

But, in the end, it is the love and support of friends and family that have kept me going, especially of a particular beautiful woman who has cared for me daily for the past year. For her, I am deeply thankful, for I would be truly lost without her.

Livin' In Da 'Hood Yo

For the most part, I try to bring you, dear reader, a taste of Indonesia that you, as a casual tourist, would never experience. The average traveler here would never visit an urban neighborhood or chat idly with the folks next door. Therefore, as your intrepid reporter, it is my job to give you a taste of real life here amongst the unwashed masses of Indonesia. Fortunately for you, I have spent considerable time and effort to master the language and to meet people so I can bring you a fairly accurate taste of real life here on The Far Side.

I am currently living in a neighborhood, or kampung, on the near west side of Jakarta, called Tanjung Duren. Tanjung means 'cape,' as in the geological feature, not the article of clothing. Duren is a particularly curious fruit with forbidding spines and an obnoxious smell, but with a delightful flavor and texture. My kampung is one of several that surround a pasar, or traditional market. Typically, the pasar is a two- to three-story building with a great number of outdoor stalls in the immediate area. Inside, you can usually find clothing, furnishings, apothecary, and other dry goods. In the outdoor area, the vendors hawk fruit, vegetables, meat, and fish of every description. Most people do their daily shopping in the pasar, with the occasional trip to one of the large supermarkets for imported items, frozen foods and other non-traditional needs. The pasar is rediculously cheap by western standards, even if you haven't mastered the art of negotiation, or 'nego.'

The pasars are spread around so that the majority of the local people are within reasonable walking distance from the kampungs. Typically, but not always, the pasars are frequented by the domesitc servants and a large, white foreigner walking through one is almost unheard of. If you are the large, white foreigner, you can expect prices to jump about 100-200% when you walk up. It is at this point that it becomes critical to know the language and the 'harga biasa,' or regular price.

An afternoon spent watching people at the pasar can be quite amusing and instructive. Indonesians have no concept of the value of time, so it is not unusual to see a maid or housewife spend hours haggling with several vendors to save 10-cents on a hand of bananas. Another interesting phenomenon is that folks will appear to be nigh on blows while haggling, only to smile and shake hands after the deal is consummated. Nego is the rule. No one ever pays first price for anything. I will typically make a show of disgust and offer 48% of first price. I can usually get within striking distance of harga biasa. It helps to know a little Javanese, too. Mostly is completely takes them by surprise when a foreigner uses the 'kampung language,' and by my third or fourth visit, they have stopped jacking the price on me.

Back in the 'hood, things are radically different from your typical American neighborhood. First of all, houses are abutted on three sides by other houses. The only opening into the house is the front, which usually includes a small fenced forecourt facing onto a 'gang,' or alleyway. There is no yard or garden, and the gangs are just wide enough for three people to walk abreast.

The gangs open at each end onto a narrow street or 'jalan.' Parking, for those who have cars, is allowed down one side, so there is only room for one car to pass. Both sides of the jalan are lined with ditches, so there is little room for error. Where the jalan connect with the 'jalan raya' (literally, free way), there is a formidable gate, usually with a small pedestrian entrance on the side. The gates are closed by 10pm every night, and the neighborhood is patrolled by hoodies who are given a stipend to watch TV and gossip about the comings and goings of the neighbors. The neighborhood patrol is run by the Bapak RT (pah-er-tay). When you move into a neighborhood, you are expected to register with the Pak RT and pay a nominal fee while leaving copies of your ID, no exceptions.

The day begins around 4am, with the call to prayer from the mosque. Every kampung has its own. Not long after that, the long parade begins. The opening salvo is the bread vendors. They typically ride motorcycles with boxes on the back carrying fresh bread. Almost all use an electronic call that typically says 'roti-roti' and gives the name of the bakery, as well as an obnoxious and repetitive jingle.

Close on the heels of the bread men are the food vendors. Here, you can get anything, from ingredients with the green grocer to fully cooked meals from the army of cook carts: soup, fried rice or noodles, tempe, tahu, fish...you name it. The meals come complete in a bowl with fork and spoon. You can transfer it to your own inside, or put the dirty dishes out and he'll be along later to collect them. Each one has their own call sign, from a sing-songy jingle to clanking bowls or wood blocks. From inside, you can hear who's going by and run out should the need hit you.

By 7am, you should have your trash bags hung on the fence. The trash man will be along shortly with a push cart to collect them and take them to a central location for burning. The 'barang-barang' man comes through several times a day and will buy junk and old clothing for recycling. Later, the shoe repairman, the rug vendor, the handiman, the clothes cart, and a whole host of others will pass by offering goods and services of every description.

One of my favorites is the Indonesian equivalent of the Fuller brush man, but instead of selling a selection of manufactured brooms and brushes, this guy carries all the raw materials and makes your item on the spot. You can custom order brooms and brushes of any kind, and he will cobble it together on your doorstep while you watch. I've even followed this guy for a while just to watch him do his thing. You can select your handle type and length, what bristle you want and what density. If you have a very specific need, you can show him what you need to do and he will design just the right brush for you.

This flotilla sets out seven days a week, every day of the year. If you had to, you could exist solely on the things that are brought directly to your door, including ice cream for dessert.

This doesn't include what you can get delivered. Here, not just pizza, but McDonald's, KFC and even the local restaurants will deliver piping hot meals to your door.

Almost no one keeps pets here. There are a few birders and children sometimes have turtles, but dogs and cats are virtually unheard of. Cats roam the neighborhood freely, not as pets but as vermin control. Dogs are considered 'haram,' or unclean, so you see very few of them. Mostly Chinese Buddhists or Christians will have them, if you find dogs at all. In some cases, they are raised for food, as there are several tribes in Indonesia that eat dog regularly.

There is nothing even remotely resembling zoning here. You can have a dirt floor shack next to an upscale multi-story. It is also not unusual for housewives to run a home business, such as a small store, laundry or other service. During the day, the men are off working, so the women rule the neighborhood from sun up to sun down.

The schools run pretty much year-round and kids go from around 6:30am until around 1pm. For the most part, there are no school buses, so kids walk or use an ojek or bajaj. Richer families will have the driver drop them and pick them up with the car. Most neighborhoods have at least one small playground near the center, but kids run freely throughout the streets and alleys, even after dark. Everyone watches out for everyone else. Strangers are watched very closely.

Most homes are multi-generational, with at least two living together. Another reason why a neighborhood will have such a mix of upscale and dirt houses is because once purchased, the lot is likely to stay in the hands of the family, and each generation will add to it, or even rebuild, if they are successful. If you know someone in the kampung, you are just as likely to know their children, parent and even grandparents, as they live in the same house or very near-by.

In a later installment, I'll describe more of daily life and what people do everyday, such as gathering to play games or just to chat. There's always some fun in the kampung!

As an aside, the English word, 'compound' referring to dwellings comes directly from the Indonesian word kampung. So now you know...

Equatorial Monotony

It's June and we should be well into Dry Season by now. But we ain't. It's been raining nearly every afternoon and today I had to slog, yet again, through flooded streets in cataclysmic downpours on the back of an ojek (motorcycle taxi). It's strange to say the least. Folks are talking about it because the typical Rain Season is around October to April. By mid-June, it should be blazing hot and dry as a bone here in the Ciliwang river basin.

Rain is not unusual here. In the mountains, it rains nearly every day of the year, but in the plains, the Rain Season is normally about six months, followed by the Dry Season. Rain Season equates to summer in the temperate latitudes. The trees blossom and fruit appears and rice grows like crazy (we're having a bumper crop this year). The Dry Season is like winter: everything dies, the leaves drop and by October, things look pretty bleak. The late rains are enough to get the old folks jawbonin' about weather, which is normally not a topic of great debate, since it hardly changes year 'round, save for the ralative increase and decrease in precipitation.

Life on the equator is maddeningly regular. If you are a freak about routine and you don't live on the equator, then you are out of your element. The length of the day varies little more than half an hour the entire year. The sun comes up roughly 6am and goes down roughly 6pm every day, 365 days a year. The temperature rarely ventures outside 25-33C, or 75-90F. About the only thing that varies at all is the amount of precipitation. People just don't discuss the weather here. Under normal circumstances, that topic would only be surpassed in dullness by the weather itself. When things change, even a little, it makes for quite a stir.

It causes me to reflect on a few things, like a cool, crisp fall morning. I miss those days when the air is clean, dry and cool. You feel compelled to throw open the doors and windows and air out the house. The very light seems to have a shimmering quality and a silvery cast to it. The light breeze stirs the leaves around and it feels as if the world is holding its collective breath, waiting for the Big Blow of winter. I miss those weekend afternoons on a day like that, where you lie in the cool, freshly mowed grass and stare up at the infinite blue, not a single cloud in sight.

I miss a crackling fire on a cold winter's morning: the smell of the burning wood and the occasional pops and snaps. I miss the cozy feeling of walking into a warm house from the bleak outdoors and shedding the layers of clothes that kept you alive. I miss having a hot cup of coffee or cocoa to warm your core, not to keep you from sweating. I actually miss those times of the year when the night is longer than the day.

I miss the long summer days, when the sun rises early and sets well after 8pm. The days seems to last forever. You fight your way home and still have a couple of hours of daylight left for playing with the kids in the yard.

To be sure, there is a certain advantage to living on the equator. The growing season is year-round, so food is cheap and plentiful. You don't need two separate wardrobes. Your toes and fingers are never numb, nor do your face and lips get chapped and wind-burnt. But the lack of variety can be as much a curse as a blessing, like the sound of rain on a tin roof; at first it's pleasing and refreshing, but after several hours, it can drive you to the brink.

Perhaps there is a correlation between weather and food. It seems that the more monotonous the weather, the spicier the food. The correlation does seem to have some validity. Indonesian and Mexican food are spicy, while German and British food are bland beyond tolerance. In my experience, and granted this is only anecdotal, the farther you move from the equator, the less spice appears in the native cuisine. Maybe I'll apply for a grant and travel the world sampling food to see if my theory is valid.

I've seen less worthy topics...

The most bothersome part of an extended rainy season is that I have to carry dry clothes and shoes all the time. I'm beginning to feel like a turtle, both for the amphibious context and for the fact that I carry my net worth on my back all the time.

I am happy that the old folks have more to talk about than just my whereabouts and doin's though. For that, let us give thanks.

6.6.10

The Evil Among Us

“To the last, I grapple with thee; From Hell's heart, I stab at thee; For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee” -Capt. Ahab, "Moby Dick"

I generally keep my cool. I am a sanguine personality and it takes quite a bit to rile me, but once in a while, a story pops up that really makes me want to start lamp-posting a few enemy operatives. One organization that I truly think should be completely dismantled and every last agent punished severely and corporally is Children's Protective Services (CPS), aka Youth and Family, aka a dozen different innocuous titles.

CPS is by far one of the most evil and subversive organizations, right up there with IRS et al, ever to foul the face of the Earth. These evil bastards accually think they have the right to interfere with the inner workings of private families, and to destroy those that do not fit their narrow guidelines of what is "healthy". Considering they are the sickest pieces of refuge to stick to the bottom of my boot, I can't wipe their opinions off fast enough. In fact, I detest these vile creatures so much that I literally become physically ill when I think of them.

What have they done that could possibly make me feel this way? I mean, besides institutional abuse (both mental and physical) of defenseless human beings, of course.

These filthy non-humans destoyed my family, kidnapped my children, killed my wife, and tried to kill me. Aside from that, they are the nicest people you'd ever want to meet. Why did they do that? They didn't like my politics. I had the audacity to want to separate Texas from the reeking pile of filth called America, and I had had some minor successes, and for that, I was targeted for destruction and the tool was this vermin called CPS.

Don't get me wrong: it was a multi-pronged attack. They used my wife's mental instability to get her hooked on "anti-psychotics;" they attacked because I dared to keep my children out of the institutional brainwashing system called public education; after my wife had served her purpose they pushed her to suicide; they held my children incommunicado in foster homes and dragged me through the courts for 2 years costing me $200,000, my job and everything I had ever owned based on nothing, as they had no charges, no evidence and nothing other than not liking my politics. They took everything of value from me, they tried to bankrupt me they tried to jail me, they searched my background and contacted people who knew me looking for anything they could use against me. Nothing. My taxes were paid, I had all my precious documents, I had a degree and a good job. Nothing was wrong, except I didn't want to play their little game.

In psychology, they talk about Level 5 life events. These are occurrences that are said to be so devastating to the individual's psyche that they are in imminent danger of suicide. It only took one for my wife. I had seven in two years and I am here writing about it. The bastards kept me so busy with court dates and insipid classes and seminars that I lost my job. Then it was just a matter of bleeding me dry so that I would give up the fight.

They were willing to put my children on the stand and humiliate them in pubic to hurt me. They were willing to destroy my children in order to get what they wanted, all in the name of protecting them, of course.

The experience was so devastating that I am attempting to write a book about it. The problem is that after writing two or three pages, I become physically unable to go further and must stop for a time. When the revolution comes (notice I did not use the conditional 'if'), I sincerely hope they all receive a little taste of what they have done to so many others. I am not alone. In the course of my mental water-boarding by these creatures, I met hundreds of others in the same predicament. They didn't have a fraction of my resources and constitution, and could only capitulate to the evil before them.

I was so repulsed by these vermin that I had to move to The Far Side. I am at the farthest point on Earth that I can be to keep me from dealing out the hate and revenge I have stored up for those wastes called CPS. The bile I wish to vent on them even gives me pause, as I contemplate the depth and breadth of my hatred for them.

Here in Indonesia, there are NGOs (non-governmental organizations, which are really CGAs, or clandestine goverenment agents) that are lobbying to create agencies here like CPS. Fortunately, Indonesian families are much stronger, and Indonesians much more distrustful of government meddling than the mollycoddled Americans who are fluoridated and drugged into submission. I have vowed to do all I can to ensure that those scum get no traction here. They are trying. There are constant news stories to try and get people riled up enough to create the means of their own destruction. So far, it has failed. I shall endeavor to ensure it continues to fail by educating Indonesians on the horrors of allowing any asshole to hold that much power.

Until they are severely and finally dealt with, I will not rest. And no, there is nothing they can do to me that will cause me to despair and quit.

Nothing.

Once a government has the power to destroy families, there is nothing left to conquer.