Monday, December 20, 2010

Danau Toba Pt. 1: Medan

Apporximately 69-77,000 years ago, the human population was reduced to a mere 1,000 by the eruption of a volcano. The human species almost died out in the 1,000 year cooling that followed. With such a cheery back-story, how could I not want to go to Danau Toba, the crater lake remnant of this volcano. I decided to be optimistic and go by myself. I was getting pretty comfortable with my Bahasa skills, and many people do the back-packer thing with zero language skills, so I figured I would be set. Off I headed, taking a flight from Jakarta to the city of Medan, Sumatra's largest city, which hovers around 100% humidity year round. That moisture turns the place into a decaying mass, where even new buildings seem to be melting, the sides completely streaked with water lines. The place also just feels dirty. The one highlight was the Ramadan night market. It happened to be the holy month when I was there, so of course, breaking the fast is the main priority on people's minds during that time. Just around the corner from my "hotel" (more on that later) was a long street which was the place to be after sundown.  Spread out along the main street and parallel to the city's main mosque, a long line of food stalls offered every kind of Indonesian food.  The waiters (kids hired for the night, not wearing uniforms or anything) would nervously approach me, the 'bule' trying to offer me a menu and a seat.  Finally I did sit down and because I was alone, a number of young Indonesians came and sat down with me to make conversation.  They were very friendly and shocked to learn I was traveling alone.  Solo travel isn't common in Indonesia, where the culture and mentality is deeply communal.  Doing things alone is considered a sign of abandonment or insanity.  After some delicious but very Indonesian tasting Nasi Kebuli (as in Kabul, Afghanistan Rice, supposedly originating from the wartorn Central Asian country), I headed back to the squalor that was my hotel.  

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Fattest Officers Ever

Between 1967 and 1998, Indonesia was ruled by the dictator Suharto (not to be confused with, whose main motive was to drain as much wealth out of the country as he possibly could while staying in power. Suharto was a military man, and consequently, he found his largest support base in the armed forces. The logical next step was to reduce the police to a second rate institution, underfunded, barely functional and most importantly, no threat to the army. Today, the effects of the Suharto legacy persist in corruption and impressive levels of incompetence. One telling incident involved my friend having her blackberry stolen through a con. She was scammed by a team, a guy and his 'fiance'. Claiming to want English lessons for their whole company, the guy then asked for my co-workers phone so he could direct his 'boss' to the place. Feigning low battery and poor reception, he walked out of the resto they were in ostensibly looking for better signal. With that, he was gone, leaving his 'fiance' behind. So, this was my co-workers course of action. She called out every friend she had, she escorted the captured fiance to the police station, and the only thing they would do without a bribe was let us, the citizens, rifle through the belongings of the fiance. I asked if they had any record on her (she clearly seemed to be an experienced con artist) and was told that the police in Indonesia don't have a database! In the end we didn't get the phone back. Another incident, which I only heard of, involved my friend's brother. Driving through a village, he hit a local on a motorbike. A very large group of villagers gathered around him and told him that if he didn't pay up $2000 (a fortune here) he wouldn't be leaving the village any time soon. Take into account, the victim did need hospital treatment, but he wasn't dead or crippled for life. Without having recourse to law, the villagers took it into their own hands.
FOLLOW UP: The other night, I got stopped in a police check and the police tried to get a bribe out of me.  As they pulled over our taxi, I could hear them both saying "bule, bule". Clearly they thought they were in for a pay day.  Luckily I was with my friend Tasha who gave them a successful fuck you look as she told them that my documents were in order so they'd better hand them back.  The jr. officer still tried to press his claim saying "money, money" but the sr. officer shooed him away and despondently handed back all my id.  

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Islamic Fashion?

In Canada, in my experience, every girl I knew who wore a veil ALWAYS wore a veil and was NEVER seen without one. Muslim girls who didn't wear a veil NEVER wore one and I don't remember seeing any of them ever wearing one. In Indonesia, the role of the veil is quite different. Some girls choose to wear their veil on Fridays only. Others wear it on days that they forget to do their hair or are running late. Most Indonesian muslim girls have at least one Facebook profile pic wearing a veil. Another interesting phenomenon is the wardrobe on Islamic holy days, such as the various Eids. Soap operas suddenly become a lot less revealing as all the gorgeous actresses suddenly get veils and as all the handsome actors look a lot more pious as they suddenly dawn kufi's and sarungs. You also see some very fashionable girls strutting their stuff veil and all, incorporating the jilbab (as hijab is called here) into their look. Its quite different from Iran, where the girls wear the veil only defiantly and bending every regulation they can, showing as much hair as they can. Here, it is not obligatory, and so girls who do wear it are mostly those who choose to. Also, some shops don't allow their staff to wear the veil. So, you see a girl walk into work veiled, do her shift unveiled, and put it right back on as soon as work is out. Another interesting phenomenon is the mother with full veil walking through the mall with her teenage or twenty-something daughter wearing a mini skirt, tight top and heels. Here, it seems the veil has a lot to do with a stage of life, representing motherhood.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Di Mana Ya?!

"Di mana ya?" You will very often here this phrase in Jakarta. The city is an absolute maze without any urban planning going into the sprawl of this city. Consequently, the citizens of this metropolis very often get lost. About 60% of the journeys I've been on with native Jakartans involved either getting totally lost, or going around in circles for hours.  And that is a conservative estimate. I remember the first outing I went to here was to the Wall Street Halloween party. It was spread out over two locations, a pre-party for the underaged students who can't drink yet (and also for the majority of Indonesians who think going out after 11pm makes you a criminal, no matter what you're doing) and an after party at another nightclub. I was offered a ride from the first location to the second. I was happy to accept. What I didn't know was that it would take us about 40 minutes to get to a place that was less than a 10 minute walk away, due to the driver getting totally lost. So, if you hear your driver, friend, guide or host say "Di mana ya?" meaning "Where is it, huh?" don't be alarmed, just sit back, enjoy the scenery and be thankful you're not driving.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Dragon and Lion Dance Competition

            The global lion dance community is a very small and tight-knit circle.  When I first confirmed my move to Jakarta I put out a call to all my lion dance friends via facebook to ask if any of them had any connections in Jakarta.  Sure enough I got a response from Cecilia from Australia, the most fanatical female lion dancer in the world I’m sure.  She gave me the number of a guy named Denny, someone who I’m now privileged to call a good friend.  I didn’t realize how generous and hospitable he would be.  Cecilia told me that his English was great but I was truly shocked at his fluency and knowledge of idioms and slang.  He even uses the perfect tenses correctly!  Anyway, after a few months of hanging out, he invited me to the Indonesia Lion and Dragon dance competition.  It was held in the enormous driveway of a mall called Mangga Dua (Mango Two) World Trade Centre.  If that isn’t a great name for a mall, I don’t know what is.  So, this area provided more than adequate space to set up the lion dance poles and benches.  There were teams from as far away as Makassar and Medan.

            The lion dance categories are as follows, poles and floor show.  The floor show is on the ground and on some low tables, or benches.  I can assure you that even though the height isn’t great, it does require some guts and quite a good degree of balance to play on the benches.  The poles segment is a separate category.  In this section the team jumps around on some poles which are about 2-3 meters in the air and topped by a platform about half a meter in diameter.  As you can imagine, the poles require a great deal of courage and physical precision in order to play on them successfully.

            Day one was the floor show category.  This allows lion dance teams a great deal of flexibility as they get to create their own obstacle course, as opposed to the poles, which are standardized by international judging requirements.  For me as a traditional lion dancer who looks back to the esoteric heritage and Fut San tradition and kung fu roots of lion dance, the floor show is really what I’m there to see.  It allows a school to show their style, character and martial prowess (if any).  Disappointingly, mmost of the lion dance schools in Jakarta are exclusively lion dancf, with no Kung fu.  You can really see the difference between a school that does martial arts and lion dance and those that only do lion dance. 

            The other highlight worth mentioning was the dragon dance segment.  In Toronto, I’ve only ever seen dragon dances that were monotonous and boring.  The lion dance here was different, the teams were athletic, graceful and exciting.  One of my favourite things that they did was to create these shapes with the dragon, for example, two concentric rings mimicking an infinity symbol, or a coiled dragon chasing the pearl in the centre.  The best part of these poses was the way the music would suddenly stop to emphasize the pose.  Then the music would slowly restart, and the dragon would return to life in slow motion, following the rhythm of the music. 

            I was lucky enough to be there with Denny as mentioned above, who just happens to know the current WORLD CHAMPION LION DANCERS!  To me, it’s the equivalent of a golf fan meeting Tiger.  They are really nice guys, and I chatted with them a bit in broken English and Indonesian.  I had already attended their practice so it wasn’t the first time meeting them, but they had won the world title since I had seen them last.  Surprise, surprise, they won the poles competition.  I got to hold the gold medal!  Closest I’ll get to a lion dance medal. 

            Highlight for me was the floor competition winners.  Their routine was great, very expressive and the story was quit intricate.  First, the “cheng” was suspended from a palm tree.  When the lion jumped up to get it, putting its legs on  the tree, it toppled over, landing on a cave.  The lion circled around to get the fallen cheng, still connected to the fallen palm.  BUT, when the lion approached the cave, a noxious gas (produced by smoke machine or maybe fire extinguisher) blinded the lion.  The lion cleared its eyes (using the sleep routine) and then a snake slithered out!  At some point a little frog was also catapulted into the air.  Th lion killed the snake and then proceeded to eat the cheng.  Shockingly, both the head and the tail of the winning floor team were pretty chunky guys about my age, but they played the lion with tons of character and most incredibly of all, were still able to do some jumps!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Zikr Session

Last Tuesday morning, I was invited to go to a Zikir session. For those who don't know, Zikir means "remembrance" in Arabic and it is a ritual whereby chants are sung to the Prophet Muhammad, perhaps accompanied by a lecture. This session was held in someone's house in the backyard. It was a huge house, with a giant backyard by Indonesian standards. Indonesian houses don't typically have very big backyards, even this backyard was smaller than the one at my old Pinewood house. But, it was completely carpeted and had a luxurious canopy shading us from the heat of the sun. The event was really for women, so there was a group of about 80 women and about 10 husbands/brothers sitting at the back.  The session began with a female chanting group.  They sang songs accompanied by a small handheld drum.  They were great, singing with clear, beautiful voices.  The contents of the speech by the Ustad were lost on me, but I was able to ascertain that he was an excellent speaker.  He would periodically break up a serious point with a joke, he would respond to comments from the audience or to distractions, such as children being naughty.  He also had two accomplices who arrived midway through the speech.  He used them for rhetorical effect, asking them questions, and occasionally letting them break into his sermon with their own interjections, which obviously supported the Ustad’s own message.  Afterwards, we had home made Padang food! (for a description of Padang food, see the post called Kelapa Gading, Glutton’s Paradise).  I saw this Ustad a second time at an immensely crowded event at the Ghadafi Islamic Centre located in Sentul just outside Jakarta.  I don’t know what the Libyans are doing building mosques in Indonesia but that’s another story.  

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Sekolah Alam

So, I visited another school as a guest and gave a short lesson to some 7th graders. The school was called Sekolah Alam, which means 'nature school'. The whole thing got set up because one of my students' kids go to that school. It is located in Cinganjur (say it ching-anjoor) which is still in Jakarta but quite a distance from Kelapa Gading, my area. The school grounds are great, lots of trees and greenery, and no classrooms! The classes are held either in the courtyard, everyone sitting together in a circle on the ground, except the teacher who gets to sit on a raised dias. I asked the kids if the teachers usually stand, or sit on the dias. They said "Whatever you feel like, some teachers stand, some sit, it's up to you." which is a very typical Indonesian response. The stereotype of tropical cultures being thin on formality is abundantly evident here in Indonesia. So, I sat on the ground and didn't use the microphone that they made available, as I felt that would depersonalize it slightly. I asked the kids to get in groups and create some questions. They were very eager to ask their questions. This school does not have any foreign teachers, thus it was a unique experience for many of these students, to be able to ask a "bule" (Indonesian for European/Western foreigner) any question they wanted. The questions ranged from the mundane to the sophisticated. I particularly liked questions like "How do they deal with garbage in your country?" and "How long do you think it will take Indonesia to become like Canada?" I taught two classes in a row, the first was slightly higher in skill level while the second was a little lower with several special needs students. It was a little challenging to teach the second group, but there were several assistants helping out, so I had lots of support. After the lesson, I was driven directly to work through the thick of Jakarta traffic. I was prudent enough to tell them that I had to leave by 11am, even though I didn't have to work until 2pm. I made it with time to spare, but it still took more than 2 hours! My parting gift was an enormous bag of rambutan, fresh from the tree! They were crawling with ants, and I had to head off a near infestation of the teacher's room, but they were the most delicious rambutan I've ever had. Incidentally, rambutan means hairy in Indonesian, and is also the very apropos name of the fruit.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Free Tebet! Ok, not quite free, but very very reasonably priced Tebet

I finally discovered the niche which I had happily occupied back home. In Jakarta up to this point, I have gone to malls, which are either for the rich, such as La Piazza (where I work), Plaza Indonesia, F/X and MOI (where I live) or that are very Asian a la Pacific Mall in Toronto such as Mangga Dua or Mal Ambassador. Other than that, there are the poor markets, such as Pasar Baru (Pasar =market, Baru=New which is ironically the oldest market in the city) and Pasar Senen (Senen is Betawi dialect for Monday which is Senin in Bahasa Indo). I thought that was all there was to Jakarta. Where were the funky boutiques? Where was the Queen W. or Kensington Market of Jakarta? Well, I finally found it! It is an area called Tebet. It is a funky little neighbourhood where you can walk around on the street, that’s right on the STREET… in Jakarta! This is pretty much non-existent in Jakarta. Most things are completely separated from the street, such as a Mall or market. Tebet is an area where while there is still the ever present class divide, you don’t feel that any of the shops are actively preventing access to anyone. This is a nice change from the Malls. So, what’s in Tebet? Truth be told, it’s a bit of a teenager/hipster district. There are independent boutiques featuring local designers and brands and the prices… well I’ll be a self-indulgent jerk and reveal that I got the jacket and sweater at the bottom of the page for a mere $18! They have clark-like shoes for $25. So, aside from the boutiques, there are some hangout spots such as cafes and restaurants, including a cool comics café, Ginyo, renowned for its duck, and a cake walk, where they serve delicious cakes in a very cozy, yet stylish atmosphere! I’ll definitely be back in Tebet, and I can say that with certainty becuase there was that pair of shoes, and that jacket, and I kinda liked some of those bags and and and… But it was my first taste of the funky side of Jakarta, and I loved it! Big thanks to Tashi for being my guide and translator. I can’t really say guide as she didn’t have a clue where anything was, but her language skills were definitely indispensable, as was the company.

Selamat Natal dan Tahun Baru

Blinking, multi-coloured lights, frenzied tangles of shoppers, the same songs playing repetitively (gradually bringing you to the brink of insanity). These are all things that make me think of Christmas! Oddly enough, if you were in Jakarta all the above would be present. From a Canadian perspective, the things that would be missed would be remotely chilly weather, family time, and turkey. Before we critique the Indonesian interpretation of Xmas, let’s do a little introspection into how xmas has evolved in our own culture.
I think it would be fair to say that for North-Americans, the consensus on Xmas is that it has been completely stripped of any meaning beyond the commercial. The religio-spiritual element is irrelevant for a large segment of the population due to the increasing secularization of the population. So, that leaves two elements, one is the material, the other is the social. The material is an inevitable aspect in the commodified cultural landscape of N.A. and even the social aspect is not seen by many as an enjoyable part of the xmas experience. Of course everyone loves their family, but I have heard several times from various friends statements along the lines of “No Xmas would be complete without a family fight!” For me, and I’m sure many others, this doesn’t hold absolutely true, but I can definitely relate to the sentiment.
In Indonesia, somewhere around 90% of the population is Muslim. In Jakarta, I predict this number is slightly lower, but still quite high. Despite this fact, every mall is decked out to the nines in xmas decorations. My building has giant blinking snowflakes hanging from the 23rd floor to the ground, and even in the tiny mom and pop shops in the cheaper malls like Mangga Dua (Mango Two), the staff are wearing reindeer hairbands or Santa hats! I’ve also seen a number of rather skinny, Indonesian looking Santas. Also, one unfortunate consequence for the retail sector is that unlike in N.A. where they have you by the balls prior to Xmas, due to the compulsory gift buying in time for the 25th, most Muslims don’t care about buying by the 25th, and so rather than high prices, here there are incredible sales in the lead-up to Xmas, including chaotic midnight sales which run until 3am.
Another ironic departure from the NA celebration of Xmas is the fact that most Christians here go to Church as part of their Xmas ritual. I know that some people in NA do go to Church, but here it is much more common. This might be a sort of assertion of identity, as any minority religious-ethnic group, which is enveloped by a large majority group, tends to do. It seems that in Indonesia, more of the Islamic holidays involve a family trip to the mosque, so this could be a reaction to that tendency.
Oddly, one element missing from the typical Indonesian Xmas is a family dinner. In such a family oriented country as Indonesia (which cuts across ethnic lines) it is quite strange that this part of the holiday, which is absolutely mandatory in NA, is absent. Perhaps it is because the families see each other on a much more regular basis that it is not seen as quite so vital. I know that on my NA side of the family, Xmas was one of the 4 yearly holidays at which family dinners were obligatory. I don’t use the word obligatory to disparage my experience of these dinners, which I always enjoyed, but simply to emphasize that they were not optional (woe betide me if I suggested I had somewhere else to be!).
My actual Christmas was spent at the luxurious Four Seasons having a Christmas day buffet. The food was incredible, despite the hefty $40 price (which in Indonesia is quite high). They even had all the back home classics like Turkey with stuffing and cranberry sauce, Roast Beef (5 star!) and a bean salad, which I absolutely had to try as it is one of my mom’s classic dishes (don’t worry ma, you got ‘em beat on the bean salad!). As delicious as it was, no amount of tastiness could fill the void left by the absence of family. On a side-note, there was a table behind us teachers of expats, old white men with gorgeous young Indonesian concubines, and the head codger at the table was wearing a bow tie without a trace of irony! If I was setting up a scene depicting the stereotype of a group of expats, I really could not have come up with anything remotely as good as that table.

Singapore Edition

Singapore edition
Logan’s run in real life! Mind you, I only visited a few places. Chinatown was so-so, very touristy which ruined what might have been an interesting ambiance. Little India was awesome, that’s definitely the place to go if you are in Sing. It was a welcome respite from Jakarta to be able to walk around and take the subway. The fact that it bore a resemblance to HK and Toronto perhaps goes to show to what degree the Chinese community of Toronto have influenced the development of my own city. I wasn’t really able to do anything interesting while I was there, the first day I was incredibly tired, the second day I was shuttling between my delivery of documents and pickup from Mr. Wahap. What a shady situation! I did two things that were fabulously stupid today. The first was to surrender my passport and a large amount of cash to basically a stranger. The second was to take a ride from the airport in an unmarked car that clearly wasn’t a taxi again from a stranger. Back to the topic of SGP, great place for the unintrepid though, easy to get around, go anywhere, unlike Jakarta. AND, AND... I got scammed by a traveller scammer! It felt like an unofficial introduction to the world of being a traveller. An old Korea man, posing as a Japanese man, tried to sell me his books on topics as diverse as archaeology, history and philosophy. He was a self-professed expert on Nietschze (his actual words!) who praised me for being alone. He clearly had a bone to pick with women. Anyway, I finally relented and bought one of his terrible haiku books, replete with rudimentary grammar errors, for a mere SGP$ 2. It was worth it for the show. His meandering conversation was clearly designed to probe for a soft-spot, which he would exploit and play on your sympathies. One bold statement was his defence of the Taliban, because they hated TV, just like "Hideo Asano" (his moniker).
Upon arrival back in Jakarta, the airport really lets you know you are in the third world. The millions of guys hollering at you that they are legit taxi services.

Does money reduce men or are they inherently base? SGP is a clear example, Indians and Malays usually doing the dirty jobs, the Chinese doing the shopping. But, perhaps if I was able to see with outsider eyes, I would realize similar things are happening in Toronto.

Jakarta: Early Impressions

I wrote this a few weeks after arriving but never got around to posting it, enjoy!
Jakarta is a city of contrasts. As cliché as that sounds, it is completely true of Jakarta. Sometimes, HK is seen as a city of contrasts, but in fact, the contrasts found in HK are slim by comparison. In Jakarta, the rich areas are rigorously defended from any encroachment by the poor. It is striking as a Canadian to see such disparities in one city. One neighbourhood is absolutely poverty stricken, with half-clothed children using the gutter as a toilet and shack after shack lining a narrow alley up and down which motorbikes zoom at intervals. I definitely want to tour one of these warrens more extensively, although I will most likely need to go during the day. It is difficult to say how unsafe they would be at night, as some blocks are defended by a crew of dozy security officers; when I was with Oncida dropping off her friend, I saw three guards, one sprawled out and napping on what might have been a table or bench, another resting as well, and the third, who was awake, had to be summoned from an office somewhere in the back, clearly not really watching who was coming and going). I am pretty sure I could tour them alone during the day, and I can’t wait to do that, I feel like that is the real Jakarta, not the glitzy globalization found in the malls.
As for the malls, I feel I sadly need to step in and defend their ubiquity in Jakarta. On a purely practical level, they are just highly functional. They are sheltered from the rain, the heat, and most importantly perhaps, the pollution. In a tropical country, these first two factors are quite substantial in considering your daily activities, and the third factor is of absolutely vital concern. Secondly, and unfortunately, they serve to insulate the well to do from the not so well to do. It is difficult to wrap your head around this as an idealistic and naïve western kid (me) and at the same time I don’t wish to justify it, but this separation is simply a part of reality. For me, it is shocking, disturbing and tragic. But, for one who is constantly surrounded by it, it becomes merely a nuisance to be excised from your reality with as little fuss as possible. I also have come to the realization (and hopefully I can avoid this trap) that experiencing something does not further enhance our sympathy, nor our drive to take action. Instead what it does is desensitize us to it. Humans can only handle so many stresses simultaneously and we are obviously geared towards self-preservation. Can’t fully articulate this argument here, but I posit that extensive exposure to something, in this case poverty, makes it that much easier to ignore, it doesn’t gradually grate on our conscience until we simply MUST take action. That being said, do I feel that a sheltered upbringing is better? No, I think it is our duty as outsiders who do not share this background to observe and push the indigenous to make changes. Because we are better? No, no morally bankrupt white man’s burden here, instead due simply to the fact that we are not desensitized and thus can identify more easily and perhaps bring attention to a problem than those immersed in it. The fish are the last to discover water. Raising awareness? No, it must go beyond that, but at the same time, we cannot rescue another people from their problems we can simply set as positive example and share knowledge. Is it our Western exploitation of globalization and trade imbalance? Yes, to a degree, but that is to undermine the role-played by local corruption. Note that I do not lay the blame at the door of “ineptitude”. That would imply that where we are capable, they are incapable. I utterly reject this notion as racist and more importantly absurd. As if out of 245 million people, no one with the appropriate skills could be found to solve the problem.
On the topic of skills, a vast majority of the labour force here falls into the unfortunate category of unskilled labour. A striking example of this lies quite literally under my very nose, in my apartment. Contractors rarely distinguish themselves by their craftsmanship, but I have to confess the job done in my building really sets a bar for poor, slap-dash job. The sink seems to have been crazy glued into place in the kitchen counter, not caulked. The dap around the door frames has not been sanded AT ALL, so basically someone slapped it on and literally walked away. Maybe, and this is a big maybe, they went over it with a finger once at MOST. The emergency stairwell in my building, which I have tragically resorted to in order to burn off some of the excess sugar found in every drink in Indonesia, is another great example of this. Each step is a slightly different size, shape and distance from every other step. The ravages of a poor education system are patently clear at every turn in Jakarta. One is really left wondering how many things could be improved if everyone had a decent elementary school education, let alone high school. One thing we tend to forget in Toronto is that even our labourers and service personnel often have high school or university educations, and in some cases are the most skilled people from their own countries, yet drive a taxi in Canada (my uncles as a case in point). To illustrate this point, I will share a story from a co-worker. He got on an ojek(a motorcycle taxi) during the rainy season. He asked the driver if there was flooding. In the neighbourhood they were in at that moment there was no flood and so the driver looked around and said “Do you see a flood? There’s no flood.” So, they started driving. My friend started getting nervous as they approached an enormous and deep puddle. He was thinking “ok, so what’s the trick here? How are we getting around this puddle?” The trick turned out to be on him as the driver simply barreled through the puddle. My friend got soaked up to the knee, pants, shoes and socks completely Sadly, some of the Westerners here have become quite jaded at this, and often either make disparaging comments about the Indonesians, assuming they are just inherently incompetent. Despicable, but just another facet of neo-colonialism at work. More on that later.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Avatar: a Feast for the Eyes, a Famine for Progress

Avatar is undoubtedly a visual wonder. I can't heap enough praise on the aesthetics of the movie, it looks incredible, the integration of CGI and live action is almost seamless. Let no one say I didn't enjoy the movie, it was fun, gorgeous and easily the best Hollywood film I've seen in years. That being said, I think the movie is a real indictment of where we are as a culture. Let's first look at the basic story elements (spoiler alert)
1. A foreigner who joins the natives and becomes their saviour
2. A pristine planet inhabited by primitive natives
3. A cloned alien body which can synch with the human pilot's mind via computers

Now I will address these points and give you my view on why they are very disturbing

1. The white saviour is perhaps the most unforgivable flaw to be found in this movie. It is the unadulterated Western fantasy, redeeming the White man for the sins of colonialism by becoming one with the natives, and then proceeding to outdo them at all of their own traditions, becoming a messiah figure, saving them from the evil of his own people. This is deeply insulting, suggesting that the natives are incapable of understanding the issues in greater perspective, an ability reserved only for the interloper. Especially if we compare the main character in Avatar to the young warrior leader of the Na'vi, we see that the Na'vi leader is blindly belligerent, without any introspection or thought. Meanwhile, the human hero is able to understand the right course of action due to his more rational approach. Its classic orientalism through and through, the irrational, bellicose native and the rational Western man, who is prepared to fight, but reluctantly. In addition, we get a nice dose of sexual imperialism thrown in, with the messiah figure easily seducing the chief's beautiful daughter. It is essentially a retelling of the Pocahontas narrative without any nuance.
Another feature that I would like to highlight is the natives pony tail thing. This allows them to 'sync' with the animals and plants of Pandora. It seems like a wonderful idea, everything able to communicate completely and thus live in harmony right? When looked at from another perspective, it illustrates the true loss of our connection with nature. Part of the miracle of man's ability to connect with nature, for example a horse and rider, or even just any of us communing with the trees for a moment, is the totally intuitive nature of that relationship. There is no tangible connection. The horse and rider always remain somewhat of a mystery to one another, which makes those moments of intuitive understanding so magical. The trees never objectively talk to us. We hear them intuitively, subjectively. On Pandora, these mysteries have been reduced to simple, technocentric gadgets, everyone having a universal format "USB" dangling from their head, allowing them to truly connect. This is part of the theme found in this movie which basically tells us our reality is insufficient.

2. One thing comes to mind here, one is the propagation of the noble savage myth. Sure, indigenous peoples deserve our respect and historically, they did suffer in the worst way. That being said, it is highly problematic to portray them as these sublime, infallible people who are deeply connected with every aspect of nature. It is no doubt a flattering portrayal of the natives but at the same time does an injustice to the historical reality and to the multidimensionality of a culture. Obviously the aliens are fictional and thus we can just write everything off to creative license, but the fact that this archetype is such a cliche motif means that we have to recognize that this is a trope and it is being resurrected here.
In addition, as Jared Diamond points out in "Collapse", indigenous cultures are no less fallible than any human society. Many indigenous cultures wreaked havoc on their environments, destroying them and rendering once fertile lands barren. It is not a disgrace to any culture, merely an outcome which is quite common anywhere humans live.
Finally, I believe that the beautiful world found in Avatar, while clearly meant to inspire us to protect our own planet, is actually the death knell of widespread environmentalism. This is due to the fact that the underlying message is that our world is not interesting enough to save. It used to be that we could depict the beauties of our own natural world as a rallying cry to save the planet. The fact that this is now insufficient illustrates the fact that people have truly given up on our own world.