I’ve been quite ill this week — not quite just food poisoning, but something a little more vindictive and involved, though not in a sentient sense. The same intestinal upset as last time, but with an added element: a burning fever on Thursday night, and fever (slightly less severe, but much sweatier) again on Friday evening.
It was the kind of fever where you say things you don’t recall saying the next day, and dream of Japanese Solutionatronic devices shaped like giant wok lids except that they aren’t physical objects but rather abstract mathematical structures which, given any question, can compute the perfect answer. “Should I buy a Lexus?” or “When should I go to sleep tomorrow?” or “What shall ultimately be the cause of my demise?” The wok lid thingie knew it all, or so it seemed when I woke up soaked from head to toe and shivering, but feeling much better somehow.
Part of the reason for the fever’s recurrence on Friday evening was physical strain. If someone asks you to accompany them to the Indonesian Immigration Office, you should only do this for someone you really care about, and should you do it, be prepared for three things:
- The filthiest government establishment you’ve ever seen, and with people smoking all over the place, too. You do NOT want to see the toilets, trust me.
- A stunningly corrupt civil service. You signed the wrong spot on your immigration card? You need it reissured? Those flimsy, hand-printed bits of paper are expensive, you know! It’s gonna cost you 1,500,000 rupiahs! (The rough equivalent of $150US.) Don’t have that on you? Well, it will cost you at least 500,000 rupiahs. Okay? Big handhandshake. Suppress desire to punch scumbag in the teeth.
- Be prepared to sit for hours and hours. Even with the bribe… these guys make you sit and wait to remind you who’se got the upper hand, and worse, if you go alone, they make you sit and chat and fuck with your head, making all kinds of inquiries into your love life, your family situation, and so on, finally forcing you to return once, twice, three times to get things sorted out. Well, unless you’re from a country where the ambassadorial presence here is strong, apparently. They wouldn’t do that to me, as a Canadian, it was suggested. But for a Korean… The line of the day was, “Okay, come back on Monday for your paper…” to which the effective response was, “No, no. I have an agency.” (Meaning a visa-procurement agency, which means a professional briber who ensures things go relatively smoothly and lets crooked government clerks treat him like crap so the client doesn’t have to be spit and shat on by said clerks.)
This got me thinking about corruption, and what a sinkhole of money it is. Previously, I would look out of windows at the huge buildings of downtown, and think to myself, “There’s no reason they can’t have a functional, clean supply of water for Jakarta. There’s enough money.” I mean, this is a city where typhus outbreaks are not that uncommon. Where people I’ve met complain (though not to me) of catching it “too often,” even while living in fancy apartment buildings with clean water… because you can never know what kind of water was used to make any food you buy outside your home, or whether anyone bothered to boil it before using it. And believe me, the tap water in Jakarta just smells… well, rotten: brackish and nasty and weird. (Worse when I’m ill and hypersensitive in the olfactory sense, but still…)
(Indeed, I suspect it was unboiled tap water used to prepare food I had at a small place in a mall in Depok, a place called Solaria, that caused this horrid sickness I’ve had the last few days.)
Anyway, at first I lay the blame at the feet of the elite. But now, I think of that guy at the Immigration Office and what a corrupted bastard he is, and think of how all the money he and the rest of his gang (whom I’m told are even worse than him, more crooked and nasty) could have been turned to making life better for everyone.
(I have another bribe story, but the other I’ll save for later. No sense in posting it now, while I’m still in Indonesia.)
Another foreigner in Indonesia, more of a lifer, today said to me — spontaneously, without hearing any of what I’ve written above — that this kind of corruption arises from the colonial past, the long rule of the Dutch. I’m not so sure it’s that easy. I wanted to say, “Being corrupt is always a choice.” (These are reasons I can’t go into why I didn’t say that — besides the very good reason that I was feeling sick.) I realize people face life on horrid wages, and I realize that temptations must be great, and I even understand the comment my friend Ritu once made to the (vague) effect that when people are poor, their actions are harder to judge (because of the extremes that they may be driven to by their poverty) than when people are rich. I understand. But when it’s bribes that push one from being (in local terms) middle-class to being (in local terms) rich, it’s harder to be sympathetic.
Especially when it’s holding everyone back. I remember a friend in Korea commenting that from what research she’d read, corruption during the dictatorship era was generally “used for constructive purposes” — ie, the money was often funneled back into development; yes, crooked, corrupt, but at least the money wasn’t just hoarded by the corrupt. So she said. I’d like to read more. Some places I’ve lived in Korea make me doubt how widely the refunneled money went — I’m pretty sure very little made it into Jeolla Province — but anyway, from what I’ve seen, Indonesia needs that diverted money more than anywhere I’ve been.
Anyway, it sounds like I’m down on Indonesia, I bet, from my posts.
Part of that comes from being so ill, and part of it is having been in the same scrubby suburb of the same argh! city for a couple of weeks without much break, plus the renewed pressures of The Freelance Project That Refused to F***ing Die. Which I hope mostly to kill next week. There’s a trip due next weekend, too, not sure where, and the weekend after to Bali, I think, both of which should be nice, refreshing and invigorating… as long as I don’t still have the runs. Weirdly, I only seem to have gotten sick after not drinking any beer for a day or two. I wonder whether a mild dose of alcohol kills the gut bugs? Hmm.
I am, in the meantime, having great fun imagining what might come of all this stuff I’m seeing as Indonesia shoots along its own sociopoliticotechnological path of development. As I’m currently halfway through my breakneck reading of Ian McDonald’s collection of short stories Cyberabad Days (along with a history of Thailand I think I mentioned in an earlier post), this is great fun: seeing McDonald’s imagined India of 2047 makes me not only regret not having gotten to River of Gods yet, but also makes me think harder, look past what I see to what very well could be — the positives and the negatives. Since I’m told Jakarta is the Bangkok of Indonesia — the city most visitors really don’t want to be in, and try to escape as quickly as possible — I’m trying to push the bleargh aside and remember to see the positives in the present, too.
And so I end with something nice to say about Indonesia: that most of its people that I have met have been unceasingly pleasant, friendly, and nice. They love to talk, they smile so much. It’s something that still weirds me out, since I’m used to living somewhere where people smile much less often at strangers.
But not just that: most Indonesians seem to have an all-abiding patience. It’s not something I aspire to myself — I tend to think too much patience can be a bad thing — but seeing how well they handle situations that would drive me utterly bananas, that would drive me red in the face with rage and drive me violent with fury if I had to live with it on a daily basis, they have a kind of calm I cannot imagine having.
Next time, or, at least, soon: ghost stories. Yes, Indonesian ghost stories. I’ve heard a couple, and they were odd and interesting, in the sense of… well, I’ll save it.
Oh, before I forget: another thing I loved was how McDonald Tuckerized a friend of mine (and his), whom I mentioned above, Ritu. I’ve heard David Brin also named a major character after her in his most recent novel, though I haven’t read it. There were, I suspect, a few more Tuckerizations in McDonald’s stories… an Ashok here, a Shweta there… but I cannot say for sure, except for the Ritu, whose fictional surname gives it away.