08 July 2010

Indonesia March 2010

I spent a week or so in Indonesia at the end of March and now that I'm finally getting around to updating this blog, thought I'd make a few notes.

Overall the first thing that struck me, coming from China, is the overwhelming poverty.  It is poverty and lack of development in a way you really don’t see in much of China.  I was mostly in the capital Jakarta and an industrial city called Semarang.  Jakarta is the biggest and most developed city in Indonesia, but it feels like what you'd imagine Shanghai to have been like 20 years ago.  It's much dirtier, more chaotic, the traffic is truly unbelievable, the air is terrible, police corruption is reportedly rampant, it’s 100+ degrees and 90% humidity (in March).  The gap between rich and poor is more apparent than that in Shanghai.

The traffic is so ridiculously jammed, that it's virtually impossible to make a left turn (crossing traffic) or a U-turn at a median.  So these enterprising street kids have set up an operation whereby they're posted at major intersections and U-turn spots, and when you indicate that you need to turn left, they physically guide your car in the proper direction, literally forcing the oncoming cars to stop and let you pass.  For this service, the driver cracks his window and passes down 100 rupiah ($0.01).  This is basically the only way to make a left turn in the downtown area from 6AM until 10PM.

They other thing that you notice as a foreigner, especially coming from China, is the very tight security at all buildings and complexes.  You approach the hotel and it’s a big, walled compound up on a hill or a cordoned off city block.  Big gates and thick cement blast walls.  Your car is searched thoroughly when you enter.  Trunk is opened, mirrors placed under the car to check for explosives, dogs sniffing, armed guards, etc.

When you actually get to the doorway of the hotel, it is the same as airport security.  All bags must pass through an x-ray machine and you through a metal detector.  There were also sturdy barbed wire fences surrounding all the factories for some reason, something I've never seen in Korea or Taiwan or China.

Another thing I learned is that a big chunk of the economy (banking, restaurants, manufacturing, transportation) is controlled in large part by ethnic Chinese, so there have been several crackdowns / backlashes against Chinese.  At one point it was actually forbidden to teach Chinese in schools, and there were riots and looting of Chinese-owned businesses.

Not really having anything to do or knowing the lay of the land, I went to the hotel bar one night.  The bar was filled with 50-60 year old European (lots of Dutch; Indonesia was a colony of the Netherlands for hundreds of years until the mid-1940’s) business men and 15 year old Indonesian hookers in heavy makeup and fake eyelashes.  100 bucks a pop, a huge amount in Indonesia, but not much (especially when converted to Euros) for a Dutchman.  Truly depressing.  I drank whisky and made friends with the bartender instead, who ended up being Chinese, and told me how lousy it was to be a Chinese in Indonesia unless you owned your own business.

The next night I decided to go for a walk around the city instead of returning to the bar.  After no fewer than 5 different bellhops told me “jakarta not safe” as I made my way down the hotel drive, it turned out to be just fine.  It seemed like people were surprised to see a foreigner walking out alone, but it was a pretty interesting scene.   Wild soccer fans raucously parading through the streets after a victorious match, a bunch of street vendors selling various goods, a lot of street food carts, and about a billion motorcycles.  Everyone smiled and I didn’t feel unsafe at all.

Anyway, it was an interesting place to go for a week, a nice change of pace from China, but next time I go I'd hope to hang out with someone who knew the city instead of just going around from factory to factory in the back seat of a car.

Spotted at SIN

I saw this out the airplane window a few months ago on my way to Jakarta.  You can't really tell from this blurry picture but the writing on the side of the plane says "State of Kuwait."

Just as we were about to pull away from the gate, 3 or 4 big black Mercedes-Benz sedans pulled up and discharged their passengers who quickly boarded this private jet, shielded by bodyguards and minders holding black umbrellas.  Made me wonder what was going on!  A meeting of the heads of the Kuwaiti and Singaporean sovereign wealth funds?  A deal to export crude from Kuwait to be refined into gasoline and petrochemicals at Singapore's refineries?  Or maybe they just wanted to enjoy some whiskey and cigars and karaoke?  Mere speculation...