Jakarta, And Why It’s So Good
In an earlier submission a few months back now, I waffled away for a bit on the various merits of Singers, Bangers, and Jakarters. That’s not a real nickname by the way, I just made it up.
I must state right at the outset that Jakarta is a terrible place to visit on business. You will arrive, spend hours in the traffic schlepping to your meeting, then more hours for another, you will stay in a hotel much like most other high end hotels, your hosts will probably insist on taking you for dinner at a not that great a chain like Tony Roma’s in case your guts cannot handle anything more exotic, and then hours getting back to the airport. There’s still a chance that the guy at immigration may try and top up his pathetic salary by spotting some irregularity with your passport, return ticket, or more likely if you are an Indian, your country of birth. That aspect has improved immensely over the last couple of years and generally it doesn’t really happen that much, to be fair.
The airport itself is not bad, though if you are not lucky enough to get into the lounge there are not that many places to sit without having to buy some food or drink, and it is a right zoo when arriving or departing, with touts offering taxis, fake watches and other strange delights.
The major problem with the airport is that Indonesians rarely like being alone, and as the family is massively important, everyone will come to the airport to see their loved ones off. Also, if you are “privileged” enough to be travelling overseas, the whole of your family and neighbours too will share in a kind of vicarious pride that their sister, brother, son, whatever, is going somewhere. This means the place is always heaving with thousands of kretek smoking blokes, head-scarfed women chattering away like brightly coloured birds, and screaming kids running amok.
As a slightly anoraky side note, the word “amok” actually comes to us from the Malay word “amuk”, meaning “mad with rage”. First used in the context of an elephant going wild and separating from the herd in the days of the Raj, it then came to describe the peculiar and specific sociopathic culture-bound syndrome in Malaysian and Indonesian culture where a male, who has shown no previous sign of anger or any inclination to violence, will acquire a weapon and, in a sudden frenzy, will attempt to kill or seriously injure anyone he encounters. Amok episodes of this kind often end with the attacker being killed by bystanders, or committing suicide.
I am sure some readers will recall the appalling scenes in 1998 as unrest at the Soeharto government turned first into noisy demonstrasi, then into full blown bloody riots, with crowds torching whole shopping malls: this propensity has always been there and something just needed to spark it off – “amok”. I had a friend who worked for an insurance company there and he told me that the Lippo Karawachi Shopping Mall claim file – complete with photos – was one of the most grisly things he’d ever seen with a large number of looters burned to death as they were making off with their goodies.
A fascinating place then!
It’s also not that great for the tourist, with very little in the way of defined touristy areas, and precious little to do other than mooch around high-end shopping malls. The historic, colonial part of the city, Kota, is worth looking at but the museums and buildings are sadly neglected, due to a severe lack of investment in their upkeep. A real shame as there are some hidden gems, in particular the old Dutch Governor’s House.
To really appreciate Jakarta, you have to live there. You have to immerse yourself in the madness of the place. Get to know and appreciate the sights, sounds, and smells – as with many SE Asian cities, it can, as Baldric might say, “get a bit whiffy!” Failing that, make sure you visit it with someone who knows the place, the soft underbelly of the Big Durian.
One of the attractions of being in SE Asia compared to UK, or NZ is that you are somewhere different. In Jakarta there is something special about sitting in the garden or on your balcony at dusk hearing the mosques starting up the calls to prayer. In Bangkok, early in the morning seeing the monks waiting patiently for alms: you don’t get that at home. You’re certainly not in Kansas now! You certainly don’t get that sense in Singapore much either, it’s so homogeneous here.
Once you live there, you will find that the expat community is a lot tighter than Bangkok’s: there are a number of societies and clubs and people do tend to stick together and support these events. You will also find that the friendships you make last a lot longer and even now some have all moved on, the group of us that were mates in 1995 are still mates, despite now being in Bangkok, Singapore, or Hong Kong, some, the poor bastards, are back in Blighty while others remain in Jakarta. Another funny thing is the number of people who return to live there after moving away for a time.
This is partly due to a smaller number of venues for a night out. This cuts both ways of course, choice is usually a good thing, variety the spice of life and all, but in Bangkok there is perhaps too much choice. When a Six Nations game was coming up, in Jakarta, the favoured choice was always Sportsman's Bar, in Blok M. The place will be full of your mates, without even planning it. You can go there any night of the week and there’s a fair chance you will bump into someone you know. <That's how the Thermae used to be in the good old days – Stick>
Although grammatically challenged on the eponymic front, the bar is by far one of the best bars on the planet. Nowadays, during Happy Hour, a Carlsberg will set you back IDR20,000, just over USD2. It does good pub food, if a little American, but the pizzas are great. One of the best things is their access to every sports channel in the world, so if STAR isn’t showing it, the SA channel probably is. Granted, this happens in many bars in Bangkok as well as Jakarta but sadly our anally retentive government here will not allow anything that hasn’t come through the government-approved cable TV service: satellite TV is dangerous and must be banned. Same as chewing gum, obviously. Where was I? Oh yes, the very best thing is their “control room” upstairs, where they tape every televised game, whether football, rugby, cricket, whatever, even things that are not really sports at all, such as baseball.
Then, suppose, as I was last week, one is in the bar on a quiet Monday night. You can request whatever you like to be piped into the TV nearest you. If there are enough of you, you can take over the main screen: one occasion I recall we got them to put Germany 1 England 5 from the previous year’s World Cup qualifiers – marvellous customer service.
In Bangkok, there are so many good venues for watching major sporting events that it takes weeks of planning and co-ordination, and then you find X won’t go to such and such a bar, because he’s barfined so many of the girls there, can’t go somewhere else because Y has barfined so many in that bar, well, you get the picture.
Sporties does not allow unaccompanied women in the bar. End of story. Blokes bring their wives, girlfriends. It’s a safe place, you can tell your wife you are going to Sporties for the football and no problem, she knows the bar, she knows it’s OK. She’s not going to red card you from there, whereas she might not be too happy about you going to Cowboy for the match.
Then, once the match has finished, what about the other game? (A neat segue that I thought!) Well, Sporties sits at the top of a street named Jalan Falatahan, or Jalan Fellatio as it is colloquially known, and along both sides of the street are a number of bars, all with very friendly young, and not so young, ladies who are more than willing to provide various services and it’s up to you to negotiate. If she doesn’t like you, too bad, there is no pressure on her from the bar to make a certain amount of money, and she may well not even take a drink off you. Even in brothels, the girls seem to be almost freelancers and you have to have some spark with the girl otherwise you may as well just go home for a Barclays.
I have been in a situation where a guy from Hong Kong, who was an utter arse it must be said, totally failed to get off with any girl in what was essentially a brothel with a disco attached, because he was an utter arse and all the girls brought to our table (this was a ‘local’ establishment, sadly no longer with us after it burnt down in 1998!) hated him instinctively.
Back to the bars that the bules are most likely to frequent. Unlike the bargirls in Bangkok or Manila, almost all the girls are freelance, so no barfines. Unlike the bars in Bangkok or Manila, there are no “lady drinks”. If you buy a girl a drink, it’ll cost you whatever it costs if it were for you to drink. It’s rare for them to try and fleece you or pad the bill because they know you’ll be back tomorrow, or next week – in Bangkok, well, we all know about some of the bars where they know the tourists will never be back and who have no idea what a beer should cost anyway.
And then the girls. I am biased as I prefer the darker, Malay girls. I love the soft, milk chocolate skin, smooth and warm. Malay girls are curvier, with slightly rounder eyes, dark brown, laughing, twinkling limpid pools that you can drown in. They are always ready to smile, laugh and flirt.
I mentioned previously about Indonesians’ general standard of English. It is pretty good compared to that of Thais’ English. Partly due to the fact that TV programmes and films are not dubbed so they are exposed to English all the time, and they pick it up better. Their pronunciation is generally better, so it’s easier to follow them, and they are not as shy as Thais can be: they don’t care if they get it wrong, they have a go. Many Thais speak fair English but they are afraid to use it in case they embarrass themselves.
This means you can have slightly more of a conversation than “You hansum man, where you come from, you bar fine me?”
Equally, Bhasa Indonesian is a much easier language for the Westerner to have a go at. Ultimately, it is a complex language, with many suffixes and prefixes to root words that you need to know to speak it properly (e.g. “kerja” is “to work” but in certain circumstances, you should use “berkerja”), however, and this is a big however: the Indonesian knows you are an ignorant foreigner and you cannot be expected to know the nuances, so “kerja” will be understood. There are no complicated tenses, or verb endings depending on the person, as in say, French. “Sudah” means “already” and “belum”, “not yet”. “Sudah kerja” is OK for past tense, and you get the picture. “Beer satu lagi”, and “Satu lagi beer” will both get you “one more beer”: mangling the grammar doesn’t matter, they can work out what you are trying to say. The words sound how they are spelt, and there are no tones to worry about. The other great thing is they can usually work out what it is you meant to say. For years, when asked by waiters or bar staff if I wanted more drink or whatever, and I had already asked another waiter, I would chirpily say “Sudah persang”, thinking that meant “Already ordered”, and wasn’t I good at this foreign language lark.
There is, in fact, no such word as persang: what I should have used was “pesan”, but the waiter could work out, given the context of the conversation, what I was trying to convey. No doubt he went away and had a good laugh about it out of earshot but it’s all good. Compare to Thailand where tones and pronunciations are so crucial, and the poor sods have no idea what you are trying to say if you get it wrong. I do get very frustrated there as I cannot understand why they cannot figure out what you meant despite getting the tone wrong – but we’ll be here all day on that.
Indonesian food is great, but only at home. For some reason, even top end Indonesian restaurants in Jakarta are only average. Sometimes, you get a place that does a specific dish really well – the Hotel Borobudur was famous for the sop buntut (oxtail soup), and the locals and tourists would flock there for it, despite the hotel’s location. Incidentally, the chef has moved on, taking his secret recipe with him (he’s at the Aryaduta now). You need cast iron guts to try some of the smaller, local places, and not be too bothered about the odd cockroach running around on the floor. Then you can try a rendang (beef curry, flavoured with coconut, cooked for hours till the sauce is black and almost totally absorbed into the meat), udang balado, (prawns in a red chilli sauce), or soto ayam – a chicken noodle soup that they serve to you and you add your own combinations of sambals (chilli relishes), sweet soy sauce, light soy sauce, fried onions, whatever, just great. Sate from just about anywhere will be good, the meat is cooked there and then so you should be safe. Nasi goreng, fried rice made with last night’s leftovers and served up with a fried egg on top – the breakfast of champions.
A final observation. Indonesians tend to be very open, WYSIWYG, as far as the foreigner is concerned, and tend to take us at face value. There are of course a lot of things going on that we never know about, and probably better that we don’t, but there is a certain degree of naivety with them, and in many ways they are a fairly simple and unsophisticated people. That would certainly be borne out by the standard of local TV soaps and comedy shows! In practice, it means you need to be careful in asking for things: one of my friends had a couple of coffee tables with those round, smoked glass tops, about two foot in diameter. Slightly dubious taste, true, but I can’t help that. Anyhow, there was a minor accident and the glass was cracked, so he had to get a replacement piece of glass. Naturally he was keen to ensure that the new one matched the other, so he gave his driver the damaged one, and with the help of his secretary instructed him to go to so and so workshop, and get a piece of glass “exactly the same as this one”.
A week later the driver toddled off across Jakarta to pick up the new one, and proudly presented it to his boss, along with the old one for comparison. It was indeed exactly the same as the old one, even down to the crack across the middle!! The poor driver and secretary could not understand the problem, they had done precisely what they had been asked to do – get a new piece “exactly the same”! To have been a fly on the wall at the workshop would have been priceless:
“So, what does your boss want?”
“He said, exactly the same.”
“What, even the crack?”
“Well, of course, he wants it the same as this one!”
“Well, OK then. These foreigners, hey? Bloody weird lot!”
Very nice indeed. My desire to check out Jakarta is rather strong. Old Asia hands have nothing but god words about the place, nudge, nudge, wink, wink!