The Jakarta Post, 18 December 2005

'Bah, humbug!' and jingle bells: Life's a sleigh ride

So here we are. Christmas is upon us and the last Metro Mad before the holiday is now inflicted upon you.

Christmas, eh? Christmastime, mistletoe and wine (available from duty-free shops only), with logs on the fire (turn the AC down for that authentic winter glow).

Yes, no matter how long you've lived in Indonesia and how at home you are here, it always feels little strange as a Westerner to wake up on Christmas morning (or afternoon depending on how the Christmas Eve shenanigans proceeded) to the prospect of a nasi goreng and a sweaty run down to the warung for some Krating Daeng and a packet of Gudang Garam.

The best policy for most festive expatriates is to huddle together like Lapland penguins at someone's pied-a-terre and drink themselves into a traditional Yuletide stupor while munching on stringy turkey, listening to an MP3 compilation of Christmas hits and trying to avoid contracting dengue fever.

Alternatively, one can head out of town, which can make for a pleasant Christmas break -- despite the fact that this experience will be considerably less festive than the previous option.

Hardcore Santa groupies may opt to head to a five-star hotel and pay through the nose for an impersonal Christmas lunch with all the trimmings while some unctuous jazz pianist bashes out White Christmas in a corner.

Bali can be a genuinely decent option for an enjoyably festive and fun Christmas and New Year's break, and usually there's a real party atmosphere in the air. Between Schapelle Corby and Jamaah Islamiah though, it could be a bit quiet there this year.

I had better think of a plan quickly, I guess -- unless I want to be crying into my fried rice while watching Bule Gila reruns come the 25th.

Then, of course, it's the New Year's Eve frenzy a few days later. It's your chance to blow a cardboard trumpet into someone's ear until they snap and insert it into you sideways. Your chance to reflect upon another exciting year in the good old R of I.

And yes, what a year it's been in Indonesia. Not all good, it has to be said, but never a dull moment I trust you will agree.

The year started, of course, with hundreds of thousands of Indonesians picking up the pieces of their lives after a colossal wall of water ripped into them last Dec. 26. It wasn't the happiest of conclusions to 2004, and was interpreted by certain fundamentalists as God's punishment on Indonesia for letting women wear bikinis in Bali. Let's hope though, that a post-war, post-tsunami Aceh doesn't inflict too much sharia-style misery on its citizens in the form of public canings for premarital courting couples and ojek drivers caught playing dominoes for a few hundred rupiah. Give these people a break, I say.

So what else has been grabbing the headlines this year? Well, Susilo Bambang Sudhoyono (or SBY to most folk) showed that he had the balls to scrap the country's fuel subsidies and, politically at least, the gamble seemed to pay off -- people didn't run amok burning down shopping plazas as they did when Soeharto tried the same trick seven years previously.

The jury's still out on whether Mr. Susilo is actually a decent president, though. We'll talk again next year, provided, of course, that my orange juice isn't spiked with arsenic on my next flight back to the U.K.

Yes, there was the Munir story, too. The human rights activist who had his seat upgraded to Garuda's new hemlock class. The verdict upon the alleged poisoner, pilot Mr. Polycarpus, is due next week, but who was pulling the strings? The whole episode shows that New Order forces of darkness still stalk the land with impunity.

What else?

There were more bombs, naturally. Sidney Jones earned herself some handy frequent flier miles and the opportunity to buy a lot of duty-free Scotch. Indonesian athletes didn't do themselves particularly proud at the recent SEA Games. Inul Daratista's 15 seconds of hip gyrating fame expired. More bloody shopping plazas opened. The city became even more gridlocked, despite the fuel hikes and, to cap it all, Indonesians in far-flung provinces have just started to drop dead of starvation this festive season.

All doom and gloom then? Perhaps, but it's just the nature of newspapers and TV news, I'm afraid. The more life-affirming stories never make the headlines in this rough and tumble world.

If you're lucky, you may get a segment about Ollie the skateboarding duck or something at the end of a half-hour news cast filled with AIDS, terrorism, war and global warming, but generally it's unremitting negativity.

However, there's still a whole lot of beauty, love and fun out there, ready to be experienced in this weird and wonderful country for anyone who's willing to put on a clean pair of underpants, fill their pockets with small change and march out bravely into the flow. Happy Yom Kippur everyone. -- Simon Pitchforth
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