Rough and ready in Jakarta
My memories of that first trip to Jakarta, before the Asian Financial Crisis of 97 and Suharto’s fall from grace, are few and far between. I remember only specific details: the tiled roof of the international airport terminal, yellow-tinted water running out from a tap, and the two figures with outstretched arms on Tugu Selamat Datang – the ‘Welcome Monument’ built ahead of the 1962 Asian Games.
Now, more than fifteen years later, I can see it through the windscreen, coming up ahead as we near the cluster of landmarks that surround Bundaran HI, the Hotel Indonesia Roundabout. We circle the fountain at its base and I crane my neck at the familiar faces, smiling from the top of a pedestal. We will return here later in the day, but first, Bama is taking me to places I would certainly not have seen as an eight or nine year old.
We park beside a canal lined with drooping coconut palms and set off to uncover small pockets of Jakarta’s colonial history. But finding the Maritime Museum – Museum Bahari – is an adventure in itself. A wrong turn leads us over a bridge, along a busy artery lined by warehouses and heavy vehicle repair workshops. The pavement is virtually nonexistent, littered with broken concrete slabs, open drains, and little heaps of garbage. Dodging an array of parked vehicles, we are forced to walk out into the oncoming traffic, a rush of container trucks and relentless motorcycles. This part of Jakarta, it seems, is not for the faint-of-heart.
Breathing in the hot diesel fumes, I earnestly seek out glimpses of beauty amid the scenes of chaos. We cross another bridge, spotting two smiling girls in the shade of a flowering tree. But I can’t ignore the pervasive stench of raw sewage rising from the adjacent canal, its murky waters stagnant and strewn with rubbish.
Hidden within a set of whitewashed colonial warehouses, Museum Bahari is mostly empty, devoid of exhibits except for scale models and a few traditional boats – among them an impressive dugout canoe from Papua. In the sweltering midday heat, the air is stirred only by a row of white ceiling fans, hanging low from the timber-framed roof.
Nearby we duck beneath the tarpaulin roof of a street stall, occupying the narrow and broken pavement on our way to Sunda Kelapa, the very cradle of the Indonesian capital. Once the main harbour of the Sundanese kingdom, Sunda Kelapa is still a working port, with goods being loaded onto the motorised pinisi schooners lined by the wharf. A hallmark of the Bugis people in South Sulawesi, these two-masted sailing ships have plied their cargoes throughout the archipelago for centuries, shuttling precious spices and other commodities between Indonesia’s 17,000 islands.
Kota Tua, literally the “Old City”, is what remains of Dutch-built Batavia. Inside the stately residence which once housed the Governor General of the VOC (Dutch East India Company), the Jakarta History Museum faces the grey expanse of Fatahillah Square. Our footsteps make a dull thud among the towering bookcases and intricately carved screens in tropical hardwood. Standing in the centre of a room, a Portuguese commemorative stone pillar (padrão) is conspicuously carved with a globe. Bama tells me of Bahasa’s loanwords from Portuguese, among them bendera – flag; gereja – church; and jendela – window. They were the first Europeans to reach the fabled ‘Spice Islands’, and along with Malay, Portuguese gradually became the lingua franca for trade over the next three centuries.
Outside the history museum, the rest of Kota Tua possesses a faded beauty; an art deco post office and railway station stand amid several blocks of graceful stone buildings, many with stains running down from the upper stories. Others have fallen into a state of advanced decay, roofless ruins at the mercy of the elements. Still, the streets are marked by the rhythms of an ordinary weekday, from the food carts, kedai makan, to the ubiquitous orange bajaj (pronounced bahdge-eye), puttering three-wheeled vehicles imported from India in the 60s and 70s.
On the way back from Bundaran HI, we spend two hours and 40 minutes in macet – the term for Jakarta’s infamous traffic jams. We had left the city centre on the cusp of rush hour, but not quick enough to escape the gridlock on a Tuesday night. Inch by inch our vehicle crawls southwards, jostling for space with motorcycles weaving through every possible nook and cranny. A handful of peddlers wander from lane to lane, offering snacks and bottled drinks to weary drivers. Behind the wheel, Bama is visibly frustrated. “We have the second-worst traffic in the world, behind São Paulo.”
Jakarta is often likened to a “Big Durian” – large, jagged around the edges, and betraying a rancid odour; it’s a popular moniker among visitors and expat circles. This megalopolis is a vivid picture of both wealth and desperation, a startling contrast that is even more pronounced than in my hometown of Hong Kong. Shacks roofed in corrugated iron line the banks of the Ciliwung River, while glassy skyscrapers rise above upscale shopping malls parked along the gridlocked avenues. In the entertainment district of Kemang, a Japanese restaurant sprawls beneath a set of pavilions within a lush garden setting, hidden from the chaos behind a high stone wall and barrier of well-trimmed foliage.
There’s a dish I try on my first night, soto betawi, that strikes me as a microcosm of the city itself. It doesn’t look particularly appealing at first, a host of ingredients swimming in a bright yellow soup that glistens with drops of oil. I dip a spoon into the bowl and take a whiff of its pungent, unfamiliar scent, a meld of flavours that I cannot pinpoint with my limited vocabulary of spices. This – alongside the diesel fumes of an army of motorbikes, the rotten odour rising from polluted canals, and the comforting aroma of cloves and tobacco – is the smell of Jakarta.