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Ally' ╗ Travelogue ╗ Extremists, extremists, everywhere
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Extremists, extremists, everywhere

Chapter Five of my new book: "So you're surrounded by people who want to beat you to death".
No. of days since last hot shower: 17
No. of cases of gastro: 1
No. of days since I've seen toilet paper: 13
No. of times I've wished I had toilet paper: 317
No. of rats in last night's room: 2

Well, I managed to get of Jakarta alive … just. After listening to the hundreds (OK, maybe four) e-mails telling me I really ought to consider getting 'the hell out of Jakarta as quickly as possible', I booked a plane ticket to Singapore for the following night. Unfortunately, this was also the deadline imposed by the local Islamic extremist group for the Indonesian government to cut ties with the U.S. Otherwise, they warned, 'sweeps' in tourist areas would commence.

For the uninitiated, sweeping is local slang for rounding up a mob of other like-minded religious nuts and running through tourist-oriented areas (like the Jalan Jaksa backpackers' quarter where I was staying) and rooting through cafes and hostels looking for foreigners and then roughing them up a little (or a lot, depending on their mood) in the hope that they'll hightail it out of the country. Think of it as a rather effective tourism campaign, in reverse.

Throughout the day there were rumours of plans for sweeps during the night, rumours which didn't do wonders for our already frayed nerves. The few foreigners who were either to poor or too stupid to have left Jakarta already - I'm not sure which category Benedicte and I fell in to - spent the day congregating around bars on Jalan Jaksa that broadcast CNN and talking to locals who'd been down to watch the police and military unleash tanks, tear gas and water canons on protestors outside the American embassy, which was worryingly only 500 metres beyond our hostel. So it's not hard to understand why I was glad to jump into a cab and head off to the airport as the sun began to set and the first groups of protestors began to form around the police-guarded entrance to the street.

Having said goodbye to Benedicte - she was determined to flee the country by boat the next day because, as only a French girl would say, 'any other way is not as adventurous' - I sat back as the cab pulled out of Jalan Jaksa and smiled at an angry protestor glaring into the cab from the street. I was on my way to the safety of the airport now, and in an hour this city and its angry zealots would disappear beneath the wings of my flight to Singapore.

Five minutes passed and I realised we hadn't moved an inch. The protestor was still glaring angrily at me from the street, and he seemed to have rounded up a few of his mates to keep him company. Judging by their menacing stares and the bamboo cane one of them was pounding into his fist, I could only guess they were holding some sort of competition to see who could scare me into losing bowel control the quickest.
I could only guess they were holding some sort of competition to see who could scare me into losing bowel control the quickest.
They came very close to a three-way tie.

'Why don't we move?' I asked the cab driver, hoping he had simply forgotten to put his foot on the accelerator.

No such luck. 'Many car. Angry people not let any car go. Airport now take three hour.'

This traffic jam, and the two and a half hour crawl to the airport that followed, meant that I missed my flight out of Jakarta. Not to worry, I was told, simply come back tomorrow night.

Tomorrow night? One more night in Jakarta?!


Creeping back quietly into Jalan Jaksa by cab, I checked into another hostel, cautiously listing my nationality on the visitor's whiteboard at the reception desk as 'Afghani' … just in case. After a few drinks to ease my nerves I struck up a conversation with the local barman. A group of local shop owners reliant on backpacker dollars, he reported, had formed a kind of 'neighbourhood watch' that was more of a 'crazed, religious, sweeper-nut watch', essentially guarding both ends of the street. Safe in this knowledge, I managed to get an hour or two of sleep. It was only the next morning that I learned from the hostel owner that three men had managed to evade both the police and the locals and had started sweeping at the hostel next door. Luckily, they were caught within minutes.

The next day was nerve-wracking but uneventful. There were police everywhere on Jalan Jaksa so there was little danger, but the tension had even the relaxed locals fidgeting nervously and eyeing off any suspicious activity. Local businesses were closing up - the exodus of tourists having sent many bankrupt - and foreigners milled around restlessly waiting for flights out of the country.

I did, however, discover a new culinary favourite on my last day in Indonesia: fresh fried fish, and I do mean fresh. After ordering I watched in a amazement as the hawker owner reached into a bucket of seething water by his feet and pulled out a live 30 cm fish, only to throw it into the neighbouring bucket filled with a marinade. The fish gasped helplessly for a few seconds, after which it was pulled out once again and thrown into the next bucket, this time filled with batter. The poor thing flopped around, hopelessly sucking batter into its gills and coating itself in the stuff, before being unceremoniously pulled out and dropped, still flapping, into a wok of bubbling oil. Any lingering guilt was quickly forgotten as I bit down on the first forkful. Fantastic.

Fed and watered, I once again made my way to the airport at dusk and, like refugees fleeing persecution, a 747-load of relieved foreigners took off for the safety of Singapore.

But I'll be back. One day.

Another country, another case of culture shock. Singapore is without a doubt the cleanest, safest and most well-planned city I've ever seen. Wide, palm tree-lined streets; spotless pavements; beautiful, manicured parks; clean water; an easy-to-use, ultra efficient subway system; English-speaking natives; awe-inspiring high rises … you'd almost think you were stuck in an architect's model of the perfect metropolis rather than an actual, living city. In fact, Singapore has so readily embraced the ideals of Western city culture - shopping malls, cleanliness, high rises, modern facilities and fast food franchises - that it's beaten the West at its own game.

And it drove me crazy.

The problem is that for all their planning, polishing, cleaning and sweeping, the architects of Singapore forgot that there's only one thing that can't be artificially created or designed, and that's personality. And sadly personality is exactly what this country is lacking. In pursuit of the Western ideal, Singapore's omnipresent government seems to have beaten the rich cultures and histories of its Chinese, Malay and Indian inhabitants into Westernised submission. Even Chinatown - which usually promises nothing less than chaos - has been redeveloped into a gentrified, shopping centre-esque shadow of its former self. This wasn't Asia. This was an Asian-inspired Disneyland. Asia Lite, if you will.

Where was the garbage? The homeless? The destitute? The crumbling gutters? The pickpockets? I've always believed that it's a city's imperfections that define and characterise its personality; and sadly Singapore is a city without flaws.

So I was understandably ecstatic when I stumbled upon Little India in the city's north. Like a rebellious teenager that refuses to clean up its room, this corner of the city is messy, noisy and seedy. I spent five, content hours wandering around the alleys and streets that many Singaporean Indians call home. The smells of cumin and incense mingled with the sounds of tacky Indian pop music blaring from loudspeakers and the sight of overflowing garbage cans (heaven forbid!) and prostitutes sitting oh-so-unseductively in the doorways of the city's 'pink light' district.

By day I engaged in the two favourite past times of Singapore's three million inhabitants: eating and shopping. Singapore is without doubt the food and shopping capital of Asia. The ethnic-diversity of its inhabitants and the quality of its local produce means that not only can you find cheap food from every corner of Asia, but it's all fantastic as well.

Unfortunately, it all got a little too expensive (AUS $9 for a glass of beer!) and within two days I'd spent more in Singapore than I had in over ten days in Indonesia. So, with my wallet feeling the pain, I booked a bus ticket to Malaysia and headed off.

Another day, another country. Melacca is a historical city on the south west coast of Malaysia but of course, none of you really care about when it was founded, colonised, etc, and to be honest, neither do I. You see I haven't come to Malaysia in search of history, culture and spiritual enlightenment. To be totally and painfully truthful, I've come to this country in search of only one thing: the perfect bowl of laksa. From hawker stalls in the Cameron Highlands to people's homes in KL and even shopping mall food courts in Penang, I'm determined to try each and every variation and combination of this national dish until I can safely conclude that I'll never do better.

Will I find it? Maybe not. But the search is going to be fun.

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