Saturday, November 05, 2005

Georgetown, Pulau Penang, Malaysia

Just got here by ferry after a mercifully brief stay in the town of Medan. Whereas Danau Toba is a siren gently whispering in your ear you to stay in Indonesia, Medan is a urine stained tramp screaming at you to get the fuck away and fast. Medan might be the Indonesian word for Barry.

There is a futile quest among backpackers to "discover the real country" in the places they visit. To really do so would be like a self-inflicted curse. Medan, in many ways, is the reality for millions of Indonesians; a dirty, heavily polluted sprawl with little to offer to visitors and where the abject poverty is not scenic and rural but made the more obscene by the ostentatiousness of the very few Indonesians who are getting rich. The rural exodus currently taking place in Indonesia means that this will be oh-so real for more and more people. Countries are never like the postcards. The problem is that postcard Indonesia is shrinking whereas the grim bits are not. The "real" country might be something you'd wish you'd left undiscovered.

One sign of the growing wealth disparity in Indonesia is the size of the wad of cash that expats and backpackers carry. ATM's have made it to Indonesia but they mainly dispense 50 000 Rupiah notes (about $5). These are a bastard to change as most dealings are done with 1000 Rupiah notes. When buying a pack of ciggies and some bottles of water with a 50k note I often had to wait for change as the stall owner rustled up what cash they had amongst his family. The result is that you accumulate big wads of greasy notes unless you do a big shop. I doubt many Indonesians have access to a bank account except those for whom 50000 is chicken feed.

My perspective on the country should be taken with a pinch of salt. The last time I was here it was shortly after the late nineties currency crash and I had been mainly in Java whereas this time I focused on Sumatra. That being said, the change I have seen leads the tone for this report of sorts. Several years of economic doldrums have taken a heavy toll on the place. The amount of people under the poverty line has sky-rocketed and whatever infrastructure had developed has started to decay. Corruption is rampant and seems to be the rare growth industry in the country.

However, all the above are in the realm of stats and news. What really worried me was a subtle change in outlook of the people I talked to. On my first visit I found folk a bit stunned by their yo-yoing currency but they still saw themselves as the inhabitants of a burgeoning Asian tiger. They were optimistic and ambitious. I met many who told me of what they hoped to become, what education they were getting for themselves and they seemed generally confident. The feeling I get now is of anxiety and fatalism. The massive increase in the price of fuel is seen as another calamity to befall them. The hope seems to have gone and the future is now something to be feared instead of welcomed. It was this feeling that worried me the most.

What the future holds for Indonesia is not really for me to say but I'll give it a shot anyway. From what I can work out the tea leaves are not looking good for this archipelago. Malaysia and Thailand have pulled themselves out of the slump and China is racing full stream ahead. Indonesia isn't doing so well. The real problem is that it might not be allowed to. From the look of things Indonesia is getting fucked over and this is only the foreplay.

Western companies have already got themselves sweetheart deals on Indonesian natural resources and the Chinese are moving in fast. This has not really benefited the country as a whole. The only evidence of real investment I saw were mobile phone networks. But these are reasonably cheap to set up and rewards are quick. The big danger is that Indonesia might become a very poor country with lots of natural resources and a bounty of cheap labour. This is probably the worse possible situation to be in. It can develop into a perverse economic reality where democratic and economic progress are not in the interest of many powerful players. The status quo will be too profitable. China is already considering shifting its textile industries to Indonesia to get around EU quotas. Sweatshop time.

As for a lot of countries, what might make this possible is corruption and Indonesia is a world champion in the brown envelope game. Also, one of the big power brokers in Indonesia, the army, is seriously bent as well as being vicious. An expat told me an interesting story that probably says a lot of that particular bunch. 3 years ago, in a town a few miles south of Medan, the police nicked a soldier dealing weed. This was their monopoly so they were not too chuffed with the guy. Unfortunately his mates got wind of this and the local troops showed up at the nick with all their toys and started shooting. Several plod were killed and the tension spread across Sumatra between green and blue. Megawati had to fly in and sort things out. I googled this to see if anyone had gotten tried for this. Zilch. This is not the kind of power that is relinquished voluntarily. To make things worse, the president has just asked the army to take over anti-terrorism ops as the police have had no joy on the latest Bali bombings. Guess what methods they are going to use.

All this sounds grim and hopefully I am dead wrong but it's difficult not to see the poverty and wonder how the fuck this happens and what are the chances of things getting better. The NGO workers from Aceh I met seemed confident but they work from a very low baseline upwards. Even then, I have heard stories of NGO one-upmanship and stupid end-of-budget spending. One guy told me of clinics from different outfits built side by side whereas 30 miles away some refugees are still in tents and medical help is inexistent. This is probably a result of the glut of money after the Tsunami and public pressure to show results but I guess and hope that for every fuck-up there are several success stories.

From a personal level, Indonesia was a training course of sorts. In all fairness I pretty much legged it through Sumatra and did not really get to know the place. However, this is not a South East Asia jaunt as I have done parts of this area before, albeit in a piecemeal way. China and Central Asia are the biggies on this little "Jakarta to Jerusalem" jaunt so I can't spend too much time faffing about on the backpacker classics. Tempus fugit and pecunia hitches a ride so choices have to be made.

It has helped me get back into the swing of things. I am definitely getting older and my adjustment period seems longer than before but I'm pretty much there now. We all tend to lead our lives to a pattern and mine now consists of hunting down guesthouses, working out my next stop, choosing what way I should pack my rucksack and mild anxiety when eating from roadside stalls. I have by now mastered the squat toilet and am used to dealing with the touts. The hustle and the hassle are not news anymore.

On that note I have found out that generally accepted wisdom is often bollocks. It seems that the most used method of dealing with touts is to smile sheepishly and plod on to your destination or accept that you are going to get stung. This is to avoid unsightly clashes of cultures and makes the traveler's life easier if a bit awkward. As all compromises it tends to be a crap method. I have accidentally discovered a great way to start bargaining. I was getting off a bus and the becak (a sort of mongrel offspring of a moped and a phone box) drivers made the surge towards the white guy in pack-hunter way. Arms were outstretched to grab my bag but probably to lay claim to me instead of theft. I was somewhat tired and grumpy and as I felt my bag being tugged away from me I found myself barking "back off" at high volume and probably a couple of octaves lower than the locals are used to. I then witnessed a fishlike group movement to create a safe circle away from me. Maybe the adage that anglo-saxon languages are good for imposing authority (lion-tamers use english or german as the guttural nature of these lingoes seems to work better with animals) is true or maybe they started to see me as an angry, confused and somewhat large creature and decided to step back but I used that pause to get an sort of auction going on the price of a lift into town. I had been told the real price by an expat so I didn't get stupid and callous over it but it was an interesting experiment.

Anyway, I'm in Penang now and I am impressed so far. Report will come soon.

Take care,



Post a Comment

<< Home