Freitag, 28. August 2009


lost the culture, the culture lost
spun our minds and through time
ignorance has taken over

- take the power back, rage against the machine

i continued my journey from the dusty back streets of dili to a city-state which has often evoked contradictory emotions in me - and did not fail me in that respect this time around either.

it is in a way The New Jerusalem, the shining city on a hill, the model which other cities in the region want to emulate. jalan casablanca in my current hometown claims it shall become the new orchard road of jakarta when its newest shopping malls and exclusive condos are ready. its stylistic influence is more than visible in the futuristic, optimistic dreams of dilis urban utopianists displayed on posters in front of the perhaps-to-be-built shopping malls, office towers and casinos.

the real thing, in the meantime, is busy re-inventing itself with more glitzy malls, more high-rise, executive style living, more high-end shopping, and, inevitably, more rules and regulations. more courteously silent but politely insistent 'assistants' to show you with understated handsignals which side of the corridor you should walk on or which entrance you are not allowed to use. more public commons turned into private territory, more notices to make sure you abide by the rules. never is a voice raised, for they never seem to be need to be raised, be it in admonishment or in protest, for pretty much almost everyone except for me seems to not only accept the reglementations but positively embrace them - another trend the airconditioned nation has been exporting to its regional neighbours.

the benefits are of course obvious and i was able to enjoy them myself: an extremely efficient and functioning medical service; impeccable public transport services which are being constantly improved; well-kept parks, renovated old buildings and well-stocked bookstores in which to wander around; even a blue sky on an almost daily basis - a rare treat in jakarta. yet something seems amiss.

maybe its just me and my knee-jerk leftie instincts, but something to me does not seem to be quite right in a society where apparently the average consumer has six credit cards and the government has announced that spending seven times your monthly salary on a designer handbag is not excessive in these times of crisis, yet on the radio you have adverts for personality enhancement and management courses and senior government officials worry whether the average citizens 'might know the price of everything but the worth of nothing.'

i was particularily struck when i was wondering through the extremely worthwhile, eclectic and highly (overly?) ambitious museum of asian civilisations. the museum, in one of those twists of post-colonial irony is housed in a british colonial building lovingly refurbished by the former colonial subjects and which, in addition to the museum, has a franchise of a french-owned global bar which openly draws on the orientalist romanticism associated now by ex-pats and locals alike with the french colonial subjugation of cambodia, laos and vietnam. but enough about indochine, back to the museum: its excellent displays of what were basically snapshots of the immense cultural wealth of the region, of intricately crafted 3 000 year old east javanese bronze drums, of hmong hill tribe child-care and the non-linear geometry of ancient gujarati mathematics, the centuries of chinese political history, the tree-bark books of batak magic and traditional medicine written a mere 70 years ago but now almost forgotten...

all of this reminded me of something i at times forget, especially in places like singapore, jakarta, kl, manila, medan, shanghai, etc.: that there is so much here apart from the ubiquitous obsession with bmw, louis vuitton and prada; the fetishisation of western luxury goods and material wealth. yet i have a lurking suspicion that much of that rich cultural history is being lost, very fast, as the young urbanites spend their days in air-conditioned shopping malls slurping super-size soft drinks, eating western fast-food while playing online games on their i-phones.

culture, is of course not a museum but an interactive, ever-changing process of inventions and re-inventions, of appropriations and adaptations. but still the contrasting of what was on display in the museum and what i saw outside in the shopping district struck a melancholy note with me.

and yes, i do sound very old saying that.

Dienstag, 18. August 2009

new beginnings

WHOOOMP! BOUNCEBOUNCEBOUNCEBOUNCE... SCREEEEEECCHHHWHIRRRRRR.... KLONK! it was a smooth landing at nicolau lobato intl airport. a smooth landing by merpati standards, that is. so i'm back to dili, almost to the day 10 years after i first got here. and somehow it feels like a good place to restart my blog, now that i've finally found the inspiration to do so again, an inspiration that had dissipated out of me about 1,5 years ago for a number of reasons i haven't fully explored but do have a vague sense of. but, be that as it may, the drive to publish the outpourings of my cerebral cortex is back again.

so its back to t-l, and this time i'm here as a mere lowly tourist, with (almost) no other agenda, and i'm seeing the country from a wholly new perspective. instead of trying frantically to arrange research meetings or trying to get my head around the latest political developments, i finally have the time and headspace to appreciate the beauty of the morning mist enveloping the fishing boats and vietnamese freighters in dili harbour, the dignity of the old villagers sitting in the late afternoon sun, the exhilaration of cruising along the hilly coastal road on a motorbike, the colours of the vegetable market, the strong coffee, the casual conversations.

nonetheless, the place has a peculiar, almost surreal touch to it, things which i have written about earlier here as well. the co-existence, in such a small geographical space, of the parallel worlds of the ex-pat malae, the non-ex-pat foreign laboureres and traders, the nascent local upper and middle classes, the urban under-classes and the rural population. and the heavy militarisation of the place, the striking, deliberate and calculated casualness with which the young local and foreign men (and on occasion, women) in uniform strut their assault rifles in public, implicitly displaying their readiness to use violent, lethal force.

since the last time i came here over half a year ago, the stability seems to have taken root in a more, there seems to be more confidence that it might last, but the fear of a communal 'relapse' is also evident. symptomatically, the sound of the siren of a passing ambulance had the cafe staff freeze, with grave worry etched on their faces. and as always, there is a sense of foreboding in discussions about the future. 'if all goes well in october,' then we will be ok was the refrain this time, the previous time it was 'if all goes well in january,' previous to that it was 'if all goes well in august...' nonetheless, things are moving on here, places are being fixed up - strikingly, especially those with a religious connection: the statue of jesus, the cathedral, motael church, the statue of mary. i hope the reconstruction will turn out to be more than just a fresh coat of paint, in more ways than one.