Fri, 09 Aug 2002

Ambonese keep on partying despite tension

Pandaya, The Jakarta Post, Ambon

Bombs occasionally jolt the city. Rubble and debris litter the floors of buildings, which lay in a state of ruin from the three- year-old sectarian fighting. Heavily armed soldiers patrol the street 24 hours a day. Fresh fighting could break out any time.

But the famous fun-loving Ambonese keep on partying, dancing and singing as if nothing is going on.

Pubs and karaoke lounges are making a comeback as security improves. Roadside vendors offering traditional fare and basic commodities are doing business late into the night.

Just last week, residents were delighted when a new discotheque opened at Planet 2000, the largest entertainment spot in Maluku. More roadside pubs, which look more like Padang cafes in Jakarta from the outside, have also reopened.

Even though entertainment spots can only be found in the Christian area, they have offered respite to the stressful life in this war-ravaged city as well as added to the sense of security.

Something that the Ambonese lament most is probably the disappearance of their traditional all-night private dance parties where those attending, men and women, feast, sing and dance inside a locked house and nobody is allowed to leave until dawn.

But many hope the tradition will resume when the economy and security eventually get better.

"Even now you can sometimes find people lying flat in the middle of the street too drunk to go home after attending a party," said "Solina", an employee of an international organization.

Hotels, which do not have many guests staying there anymore, keep up their entertainment facilities, such as pubs and karaoke, albeit they close earlier. Hotel Mutiara on Jl. Pattimura, for example, is trying to make their few guests feel at home with live music and karaoke in its restaurant for an hour or so, depending on when patrons appear.

Although the bar is manned only by a keyboard player, the few hungry guests that come and go when they please fight for the karaoke microphone to sing a song, while others hit the floor for the indigenous poco-poco dance.

Before the war, Ambon was probably the most lively city in eastern Indonesia in terms of nightlife. But the conflict that began in 1999 has not only shattered the economy but also segregated the community into Christians and Muslims.

Nightclub Santai, Ambon's first and most popular until 1999, is now history. Located in the Muslim area, it will probably never see the light of day again because the Muslim community openly rejects any activity they deem "non-Islamic".

"I don't know what to do with it," the club's owner, Johny Betago, a big name in the local tourist and entertainment industry, told The Jakarta Post.

Other few remaining night spots elsewhere in the Muslim territory have also been closed. Locals say that these places were generally owned by Christians, who have fled from Muslim- controlled territories.

And this bad news is apparently good for the upscale Planet 2000 nightclub, which opens at 3 p.m. for karaoke before the stage is turned over to a band that plays live music from 8 p.m. until 11 p.m., and then it becomes a discotheque.

When the clock strikes nine, more cars drive up to the premises, the doors fly open, and women and men step out laughing all the way to the skyscraper.

For those unfamiliar with the situation in Ambon, even an entertainment spot such as the Planet looks scary from the outside. Buildings in the area are full of holes and cracks resulting from the bullets fired from a nearby hill when warring mobs exchange gunfire.

Armed soldiers guard the entrance and watch each bystander. Visitors begin their night out by bidding them a good evening with a smile or giving them a military salute, if you feel comfortable about it.

Regulars are, of course, not bothered by the soldiers, who are omnipresent in war-torn Ambon. But if you are new to the area, do not worry, your quickening heart beat from seeing the soldiers will soon be back to normal when you set foot on the dance floor at Level 5.

Blinding colorful disco lights and deafening house music blaring from the powerful sound systems make everyone forget about the bitter reality of life outside.

Theoretically, people are not allowed on the street after 10 p.m. without a good reason because of a night curfew imposed by the civil emergency administrator. It is safe to go out at night but it is recommended that people do not cross the demarcation line, especially at night, as tension remains.

What is wonderful about the night curfew is that it is not strictly enforced. Just be prepared for a security check on streets close to the white (Muslim) and red (Christian) territories. A body search is standard procedure.

The crime rate on the streets is low, so say locals and long- time residents. Women continue to wear expensive jewelry when they are in public places, such as the market, shopping malls and in upscale pubs.

Shops and traditional markets, which have become the barometer of security in any area, usually close by 6 p.m., but night markets have sprung up over the past couple of years after markets and shops were reduced to ashes. However, in neutral zones where Muslims and Christians can do business together, night street markets are open until well after 9 p.m.

In Ambon, the low-income bracket, too, can exercise their right to go to the club. There are small roadside pubs where the less privileged can enjoy their evenings leisurely downing some beer and shooting the breeze with friends.