Readers' Submissions

Jakarta Revisited

  • Written by IndyUK
  • December 8th, 2005
  • 7 min read


The notes that follow have been extracted from one day entry in my diary December 1997, during my second visit to that wonderful throbbing city of teaming Indo-Maly Muslims. Jalan Jaksa was the Indonesian equivalent of Kao San Road, Bangkok. By 1997 the down town core had expanded to the point that it was within sight of Jalan Jaksa. One imagines that by now it has been built over by tower blocks.

I’ve got a chauffer and a vehicle to myself for the evening, with unfinished business left over from my last visit to Jakarta I told the driver to head for Jalan Jaksa which is a street in the traveller’s district beyond the downtown area from Dharmawangsa. Here are my recollections of those few hours.

We left the bustle of downtown and purred our way along a tree lined boulevard, anonymous in our luxurious all black off-road vehicle with smoke glass windows. Soon the immediate surrounding gave way to the poorer quarter and at last we turned into the traveller’s district. During my two year absence things had changed. There are many more travellers’ facilities. Most of these newer facilities are rather up market from those of the old Jalan Jacksa days. Jalan Jacksa establishments are typically ram shackle affairs constructed from clapboard, stucco, palm fronds and bamboo. Prices are rock bottom. A bed for the night costing from three to eight dollars offers the opportunity to share your domesticity with other impoverished travellers, a host of skinny domestic animals and a multitude of cockroaches and mosquitoes.

The newer traveller’s facilities in adjoining streets boasted plate glass frontages, neon signs and European meal service. I gave my driver time off and wandered among the street sellers; wattle Warungs (cafes), losmen (guest houses) and beggars. I passed the hotel Margot where I’d stayed in 1995. I hesitated to let the memories flood in. What had become of Eryanto the mischievous barman, Kiss Balkis the weeping waitress, Thanty the precocious guide and her friend Retno? I walked on. They’d been a few happy days when I rested at the hotel Margot and I didn’t want to go in and spoil the memories just yet. My spontaneous cough ejected the foul air and charcoal smoke from a street vendor’s brazier, from my lungs. In my smart clothing I walked as an outsider. My arrival in an expensive chauffer driven vehicle forewarned all, travellers and natives alike, that I was not one of them anymore. I entered a Warung Kafe, filthy and broken down it was. I muttered “I want a drink” I said it as humbly as I could to offset my apparent arrogance. A female traveller was sat under a Tamarind tree writing in her log book. She didn’t acknowledge my presence. She, like the natives, like me those many moons ago was covered in grime and sweating profusely. It was around a hundred degrees Fahrenheit and very humid. The bar keeper wandered over and thrust a bottle of orangeade into my hand. “One thousand” he said gruffly. I handed him a crisp one thousand Rupee note and retired to a corner in the shadows. Then, way back then I would have winced at the cost. Now with a daily budget of one hundred and seventy five thousand rupees I didn’t give a shit. I mused upon the fact that one month of my pay would probably buy everything that he owned. I surreptitiously shifted my wallet from my hip pocket to my side pocket; thrust my hand in behind it, slowly, deliberately, for him and the traveller to see. What a fool I was to have brought anything more than a few bank notes into an area like this. A scratched recording crackled out ‘All my yesterdays’. How appropriate. Back then I was one of them. Now I was an anachronism. A bright pebble on a volcanic beach of black sand. Amongst their filth my obvious wealth was offensive and made me an object of suspicion. I downed my drink and left uneasily. Back on Jalan Jaksa a near naked child emerged from the shadows shouting over and over, the only English words he new; Money, money, money! Still feeling vulnerable, I quickened my pace. Dodging between the Tuk-Tuk which were plying their trade aggressively. “Hey Mister, want taxi? want girl? Many lovely girl for you!” I grinned at each of them declining all offers with my now favourite rejective reply, “Me no fuck, piss off”! Its a little rude, but it works every time.

Now the heat and humidity were distressing me. Smiles faded as I approached each gaggle of grimy little souls that adorn the shadows of traveller’s districts like Jalan Jaksa. A wizened old Chinese man blocked my path. I looked into his eyes and saw nothing. His face was dynastic, his circumstances obviously abysmal. As my surprise at his sudden appearance faded I realised that I knew this man. I smiled. He didn’t. He’d forgotten. A million sponging travellers had passed his way since our last meeting in 1995. Back then across time and space in some black hole of non-reality we’d met. Then he’d been a runner for forged documents and augmented his dubious living by pimping. I read his expression. I thought to myself; ‘The wheel of life turns but once. He who tries to turn it twice is a fool’. This wasn’t Indy standing before him. It was another me. I am a warp in the fabric of time. A ghost of the past had demonised in my form. It must be this week’s bad omen. He straightened his five foot figure and grinned through his Mandarin moustache. “YOU!.your driver gone…….gone find his mother”. I stared at him in disbelief, what would I do now?

The old man offered me a solution; “ You….you g…o in Warung, have kafe…..drink-drink kafe, drink agua…..waiting-waiting…me….you …call….if driver back from mother”. Reluctantly I entered the Warung. The walls were woven grass. The roof corrugated iron. The floor mud. Incredibly every chair in the place was of a different design. That’s how it is when furniture is collected off rubbish tips over a generation. The coffee was as black as charcoal and as thick as yoghurt. No milk. There was nothing to make it more palatable than the jug of thick clear liquid that substitutes for sugar in these parts. The coffee tasted like sweet sooty water. Plucking a mosquito from the air with my right hand I deftly crushed a cockroach with my left foot. I grunted with satisfaction. It made no difference. These two fatalities were revenged over and over by the dozens of creatures that hadn’t died at my hand. I’ve got the lumps to prove it! Time passed slowly. My clothing became saturated with perspiration. My formally green shirt now sweat soaked appeared black. My trousers were stuck to my legs and I watched the beads of sweat dripping off my nose and onto the table as if to try and wash away a half century of stains and cigarette burns from its surface. The table surface also bore the carved initials of many a lonely traveller. Some were set into a carved heart indicating that the owners had some feeling for each other. To these young travellers everything is temporary. Each day is a quest to satisfy basic needs at minimal cost. Everything is taken into account, especially by the experienced, in order of priority, food, shelter, booze, dope, companionship, sex and last, healthcare. As their funds diminish food is often some cabbage boiled in coconut milk with a little rice; shelter may be little more than a sleeping bag in the corner of a Warung without walls; booze is borderline untreated local beer, dope a remnant of a discarded roach, companionship a brief encounter at the telegraph office, sex a moment of self abuse in the search for sleep and quality healthcare is substituted for licking or sucking at itchy insect bites. A small commotion outside heralded the return of my driver and brought me to my senses. As we glided away I watched the grimy faces as they slid past the smoked glass windows as each of their owners tried to get a glimpse of my second passing.

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