The history of media seeking to leverage their publishing capabilities to secure various fringe benefits is long indeed. Traditionally, as befits transactions undertaken by relative paupers, these perks rarely rise above the level of heavy hors d’oeuvres. I worked at a daily newspaper back in the early ‘90s where the nightly assignment schedule invariably included this reception or that event — places often devoid of news value but where free food could be had. Open bar? Well, the entire editorial staff might show up for something like that.
Lookit, reporters and editors don’t traditionally make a lot of money; they’re frequently quite young. This is to say, freeloading of this kind shouldn’t be viewed as particularly untoward or shameful. It’s something of a necessity frankly. One of our many mascots in that newsroom was a giant cartoon headshot of a Dick Tracy-like character, complete with ‘40s era fedora. Tucked in his hatband was an index card that might simply have read “PRESS”; instead it read, “I’m with the PRESS. Where’s the FOOD?”
Several links up the food chain in this realm is the media FAM trip — FAM being short for “familiarization”. There’s no way to spin such an event in light of journalistic standards and ethics: These are flat-out junkets whereby some publicity-seeking entity lures reporters and freelancer types on some trip with the understanding that, once they’ve been wined/dined and return home, media will write nice stories about the resort property, the golf course or cuisine to be had there, or maybe the broader “destination” itself. In the golf and travel realm, where I’ve toiled for more than two decades now, FAM trips are the ultimate perk because, well, let’s not be coy: In addition to all sorts of free food & drink, participating media also get complementary air fare, lodging and assorted swag.
The quid pro quo nature of the FAM exercise is little discussed but well understood. One doesn’t visit a golf course or hotel, on a FAM, only to savage the place in print. That would be untoward. As our moms all told us, if you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing at all (or concentrate on something else that doesn’t suck).
Here’s another FAM trip bylaw: Answer the bell. No matter how much free boozing and carousing was had the night before, media guests have an obligation to show up, on time, first thing the next morning (according to the itinerary) without fail.
There’s one more, less formal understanding re. media FAMs to establish: Something is sure to go wrong. I’ve been on dozens of these junkets as a working journalist. I’ve organized dozens more on behalf of various clients. When one is devising a week-long itinerary in a foreign country — for one’s self — something is sure to be overlooked. When organizing for a dozen people, most of whom will be drunk 35 percent of the week? The odds only increase. The mere presence of a dozen journalistic chancers eating, drinking and indulging on someone else’s dime makes the possibility of mishap a mortal lock.
Someone, someday, will write a comprehensive book about all the great FAM trips gone awry: who got thrown in jail, what foreign dignitary got naked, and why shellfish is always a risky choice. In the meantime, writers will merely trade these yarns back and forth like war stories. In that tradition I offer up the itinerary from a single morning gone wrong, in Jakarta, during Ramadan, back in 2012. This was a trip I helped to organize and host. I promised the client I wouldn’t breathe a word until a reasonable period of discretion had passed. Still, I have changed the names to protect, not the innocent necessarily, but rather those professional reputations still in play.
In most respects, this particular FAM was a roaring success. It produced dozens of glowing, published pieces re. the awesome golf product on offer in and around Indonesia’s sprawling capital. To produce this content I had wrangled a genial and cosmopolitan group of 12 media and tour operators hailing from the UK, China, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia and the U.S. From the Fond Memory Dept., I could just as easily cite the epic karaoke session, the compelling version of “Take It To The Limit” I performed with the band at our closing soiree, the five superb rounds of golf we played, or the incredible dinner we organized for 20 at the Four Seasons. But none of those vignettes would include the burning of tires or police in combat gear.
See below a timeline of events, the morning after said banquet. I can vouch for its accuracy because, like James Comey, I was moved to take contemporaneous notes, on my phone — such was the utterly random nature of the proceedings.
5:00 — Wake up call. I pop up (because that’s what you do on 3 hours sleep), dress and hump it downstairs to be sure the breakfast boxes are ready. We have 7 a.m. tee times at a club some 75 minutes away. The traffic here is so unpredictable we are obliged to leave at 105 minutes ahead, just to be safe. We had arranged for breakfast boxes because, at this hour, the kitchen isn’t yet open.
5:15 — All 12 media accounted for. Each had answered the bell — a miracle considering the previous night’s revelry. Off we go.
5:20 — Simon, a Scot based in Thailand, takes me aside and indicates his stomach is not happy, probably due to a shellfish entrée still being pickled (in his gut) by an unlikely mix of liquors. Simon further confides that the condition of Robert, an Australian tour operator, is perhaps more dire. Upon examination, he is indeed a pale shade of green — but asleep. Our coach, while luxurious, does not have a bathroom. Simon is politely advised to suck it up. Robert is not disturbed.
6:00 — Bus comes to a stop in traffic. At first, all but Simon treat this development with indifference. Traffic often coalesces and dissipates seemingly at random across sprawling Asian metropoleis such as Jakarta, Bangkok or Manila.
6:10 — After 10 motionless minutes, folks on the bus begin to rouse themselves from their various states of sleep. Beleaguered faces look about the surrounding landscape and wonder what the problem is. Someone sees smoke coming from the opposite side of the highway. Soon all traffic across the median clears out, revealing a dozen guys (kerchiefs covering their faces) in the roadway, waving signs, blocking traffic and burning tires. We are accompanied by several Indonesians this morning, including Mark, son of the oligarch whose multi-national has hired me to help promote golf in Indonesia. Mark reads the signs and reports that it’s a protest — something about increases in bus fares and a highway interchange slated for removal. The locals aren’t having this, apparently. We clearly aren’t going anywhere either, so I lay back down across two seats — but not before instructing Jason (a Canadian based in Japan) to assure the demonstrators of my solidarity with their cause.
6:17 — The protest has now spilled over the divider onto our side of the highway. Our bus hasn’t yet been surrounded by the protest itself, but we are more or less directly across the median from the action.
6:27 — The police arrive, and after some milling about, they rush the protesters, who throw a few things — prompting the police to pull back.
[Jason weighs in post facto: “It was at this point that some of the Chinese media members with us started pulling back the bus curtains further and began taking pictures with their big expensive-looking cameras. This had an unwanted effect of drawing further attention to us. I remember saying, No, close the curtains, don’t draw attention to us! and they finally did so … The mob had by now flowed over the divider and were trying to light a car 3 rows up in front of us on fire! A few minutes later, a motorcycle cop had come from behind us in the opposite direction with his lights and siren on, toward the protesters and the burning car. This quickly took the focus away from us as the mob turned and ran at the cop throwing sticks and rocks. The cop quickly turned around and essentially sped away on his bike! Protesters jumped and cheered at their perceived victory for a few minutes, then came back to the centre of the protest, the burning car and us!”]
6:35 — A few intrepid members of our party disembark to get a better look. Smoke is everywhere now. Many of our fellow commuters are out of their cars, taking in the spectacle. We can hear the sound of more sirens in the distance.
6:40 — Cigarettes are smoked.
6:43 — Simon, having gathered napkins from various corners of the coach, spies a lone tree on the embankment bordering our side of the highway. Chin up, he walks determinedly toward it and proceeds to engage in the shame that knows no borders: shitting by the side of the road.
7:00 — Here is where Felicity, my de facto client and titular leader of this junket, makes a call. As things are still burning, the bus isn’t going anywhere, and police are gathering for another rush, she decides to abandon our bus. I’m like, “Really? Do we even know where we are?” Not really, she answers. But neither does she want to be here when more numerous police start truly “engaging” with protesters. She reasons we can find a café and call another bus.
[Jason: “I remember having a quick powwow with a few of the other members; we mutually confirmed, this was not cool! This could easily escalate further with us getting caught up in it in a bad way. We needed to get out of there ASAP, but no one wanted to leave the slight safety that the bus had provided. Our handlers however, in the front, seemed quite calm saying, No, no, its just a protest! They do it all the time! This was not very assuring, but I remember thinking it was delivered quite convincingly! Well done! We eventually came to a consensus that we needed to get out of there and about that time a police SUV was coming up on the protesters again in the same direction the bike had. This could be our chance, I remember thinking, as the protesters again roared, running away from us towards the patrol car. Lets go!”]
7:02 — Felicity announces this exit plan and bravely (with stalwart good humor) leads the group up the steep embankment to the surface road above (mind you, all of our stuff, remains on the bus). On the way up, I notice she is still wearing a pair of Four Seasons slippers…
7:05 — Simon is all of a sudden the life of the party, a great weight having been lifted (however publicly). Robert does not look so good.
[Simon weighs in: “I loved that trip. Highlights for me (apart from that fine morning) include the incredible Patek Philippe copy I picked up in the market we stopped at. It lasted me a full 4 years before getting nicked off my wrist by a Moroccan con artist in Barcelona. Little did he know that it cost all of 10 dollars.”]
7:10 — While Felicity and Mark are busy on their phones (calling the club with regrets, arranging for another bus, making alternate golfing plans), it’s clear that no one knows exactly where we are in Greater Jakarta. This is pre-GPS Indonesia, after all. Our group of 15 starts walking to the right but this reveals nothing but a residential area. We turn around and walk the other way, back past the plume of smoke emanating from the highway where massive amounts of police have now shown up. The traffic backed up in each direction stretches as far as the eye can see.
7:20 — We come to a gate where Felicity and Mark have an encouraging conversation with an older gentleman named Harry, kitted out in a traditional Indonesia kandura (full length, lightweight tunic) over which he wears a Blackburn Rovers jersey. We trade Alan Shearer stories. He beckons us through the gate and down the hill. Turns out Harry is an Indonesian Air Force veteran; this community is where he and many of his colleagues have retired. He invites all of us to hang out at the Sports Club a short way down the road. There is coffee and fruit in the small clubhouse — and a bathroom, where Robert is immediately and copiously sick.
7:25 — Upon further inspection, we discover there are tennis courts and a pool outside. “Doubles anyone?” Felicity suggests. John, a Hong Kong-based writer and photographer, whips out his Nikon and starts taking portraits of his wife, Patty — on the diving board, dipping her toes in the fountain. A deck of cards is found and Mark has convinced the Muslim clubhouse manager (who’s just arrived) to unlock the beer cooler. We should all be asleep, but those 10 minutes there on the highway — where we all sorta feared for our personal safety — have magically given way to the surreal magic of golf media on FAM holiday.
8:56 — Our bus shows up! Apparently things on the highway got sorta ugly after we decamped, but once the protesters were forcibly removed (no injuries, according to the state-run news report that night), the bus got off the highway and found us. Our original tee times long past, we make arrangements to visit another club that isn’t so far away and can accommodate our 4 foursomes.
9:30 — Again mired in huge traffic (on a smaller, 2-lane road), Roger demands to be allowed off the bus to piss. Roger is from Beijing; he has very little English and no Indonesian. Still, he makes himself very clear — as only Chinese media can. The bus driver does not want to let him off but, stuck in traffic and annoyed with Roger, finally relents.
9:31 — Traffic instantly dissipates and, after much honking from those to his rear, the bus driver leaves Roger behind. Felicity is apoplectic, naturally. We can see Roger running after the bus; soon he stops and shrinks as we drive further and further away. Mark, half in the bag after three beers on an empty stomach back at the Sports Club, bounds down the aisle and says something quite pointed to the bus driver. The bus slows down, the door opens and out goes Mark. Not sure why our driver didn’t just pull over and wait for them. By now we are just along for the ride, wide-eyed but passive, like those chumps who toured Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
9:39 — Mark and Roger pull up beside the bus on a pair of mopeds, hailed for 10,000 rupiah apiece, we’d later learn. Traffic slows the bus to a stop. Great cheers go up when they re-board.
10:10 — Simon pulls me aside and reveals that all his money is gone. It’s likely that he spent it, or lost it, or had it nicked the night before when we stumbled en masse into a nightclub populated by dozens of extremely beautiful Indonesian women. Most were pros (one can tell because normal 25-year-old women don’t generally fix their eyes so determinedly on 45-year-old white guys) but Simon didn’t care. He had pursued one with great vigor the night before. Thank god he still had his passport.
10:30 — We arrive at the alternate club and 15 minutes later I’m walking down the 1st fairway with Mark, Robert and Lin, a young Chinese golf writer from Shanghai. Mark is drinking another beer, his fourth of the morning. Lin, who can’t weigh 140 pounds soaking wet, is convinced to join him.
10:35 — Robert pukes again in the tall native grass flanking the 1st green.
11:01 — Mark and Lin down their third beer of the round. Cold Bintang goes down very easily in this climate.
11:25 — Mark cracks another one (his sixth?) but Lin finally demurs, having fallen over (giggling) while attempting a tricky stance in a bunker beside no. 5 green.
As the timeline documents, all this went down before noon. From that point things fell back into the normal media FAM routine: golf, lunch, drinks, rinse, dinner, more drinks, sleep, repeat.
On trips like these, the North American body is continually adjusting to the 11-hour time difference. While something resembling normality takes hold after a day or two or three, the days tend to start very early and before the sun comes up over Jakarta’s eastern horizon, there are voices. A single call to prayer begins faintly, barely audible over the trickle of traffic outside the hotel. Before that trickle slowly but surely becomes an flowing river of white noise, another voice chimes in to form a lilting chorus in the distance.
On this particular trip, my first early morning in the world’s most populous Muslim nation wasn’t just any morning. The 7th day of Ramadan had nearly dawned and the non-Muslim traveler cannot help but step back in reflection at the fascinating brand of Islam that has been fashioned here in a country that, unlike some, has no interest in closing itself off from the world.
Golf holiday-making and the practice of Islam (80 percent of Indonesians consider themselves followers) may seem incongruous to citizens of non-practicing nations, be they Asian, European or North American. But the impact is minimal. Indeed, like the prayer room that accouters every clubhouse, one needs help finding it, even during the holiest month on the Muslim calendar.
In most every clubhouse during this particular visit, one cannot help but notice the usual staff of young, attractive women in short skirts and form-fitting golf shirts. Yet those skirts are apparently a bit longer during Ramadan. Caddies here, as they are everywhere in Asia, are clad in full trousers and long-sleeved shirts — not out of modesty but in the interest of maintaining the lightest possible skin tone, a sign of female beauty and class status across the region. When offering to buy one’s caddie a soda or sports-energy drink, as is customary, she prefers water to maintain the day’s fasting — or she accepts the PowerAde and tucks it away to consume after sundown.
Some drinking establishments in Jakarta close right down during Ramadan, but this is rare. More common is the practice, at many hotels, where the bar does not open until sundown on specified days. But, again, just during the week — not on a Friday or Saturday night when there is serious money to extracted from holidaymakers or expatriate residents.
Standing in the gloaming dawn outside my hotel, wide awake (against my will) on that first Jakarta morning, I meet a fellow American from the Deep South, Mississippi to be exact. He’s in town for a single night before heading back out onto an oil rig where he will spend the next 28 days mining a portion of Indonesia’s extraordinary natural resources from deep below the Java Sea bed. He’s not a Muslim either but he is a veteran traveler to Indonesia. He nods in agreement when we chat about the balance of church, state, commerce and tourism, which may seem complicated to outsiders but proceeds here as a matter of course. The calls to prayer no longer seem so foreign to my new friend; apparently they can be heard each and every morning, out on the rig.