Posted by: Sam Olsen | September 14, 2012

In Jakarta

All throughout my childhood I kept coming across reference to an Asian town called Batavia. It was Dutch, I was pretty sure, and it was quite a big place by the sounds of it. I had even, in some old book about explorers or another, seen a map of it, the sort of 18th century drawing taken from a 45o angle that makes one think a) how did they find something tall enough to draw it from in those pre-helicopter days, and b) why bother with the jaunty perspective when most readers would have found it far more useful to have a straight down view?

But anyway, something about its name made me come back to it time and time again. Sadly, no amount of searching could reveal what had happened to this mysterious settlement. That is, until a few years ago when I had a beer with a Dutch fellow I had just met. There hadn’t been many Netherlanders in Market Harborough – Poles, Indians, Pakistanis, Grenadans, Italians, for sure, but not one representative from the Benelux – so I took the chance to ask him about Batavia.

“Jakarta you mean?” Ah… It hadn’t even crossed my mind that it might have changed names. I had taken it to have been one of the ‘disappeared’, an Asian Machu Picchu that would rise from the jungle hundreds of years in the future.

But no. It is instead a city of over ten million lying on the north coast of the island of Java, the most populous city in South East Asia. And this is where I went to this week for a little work trip.

It would be impossible to deny that Indonesia is booming. Ever since the overthrow of President Suharto in 1998, which the locals chose to celebrate by burning as many Chinese as possible (but that’s a story for another time) the country as been on the up. The locals even refer to it as the Big Durian, a rather optimistic and somewhat desperate comparison with New York (the Big Apple, Big Durian, get it?)

Unfortunately for the visitor to Jakarta, most of the extra wealth appears to have been invested in cars and bikes, and not in the roads to carry them. Our airport taxi driver started the journey at an average speed of 190kmh,  right past a white-helmeted policeman (at least I think that’s what I saw,  I was frantically trying to find my seat belt and wondering what kind of rocket fuel he had mixed with the petrol) who paid little attention to the battered Toyota entering Warp speed.

Jakarta traffic: impenetrable

After about three poop-producing seconds we had reached the main road into the city. Never have I have seen so many vehicles in one place. It was literally like a wall of aluminium, steel and glass moving in wave formation with not a single chink of entry. That didn’t stop Indonesia’s very own Evel Knievel from pushing his way into the metallic river, horns pharting and blaring in an almost orchestral display. Hundreds – I don’t exaggerate – of motorbikes streamed past us each minute, their drivers all helmeted and carrying the most eclectic stashes of goods, from a 3 metre pier of chip board to a natty collection of orchids. Lane switching was achieved (somehow without clobbering anyone else) and indeed indulged in as we headed to our hotel, all meaning we had little desire/ability to peacefully watch the cityscape swoosh by. If we had we wouldn’t have seen much. The majority of Jakarta seems to consist of a huge amount of mid-sized towers dotted between wide expanses of battered looking low-rise developments. And all covered by a light grey duvet of haze.

Our hotel, Le Meridien, was actually quite nice. It certainly had a swish pool and the friendliest staff one could want. The first thing that struck us though was how bad the security was.

Indonesia is a country beset by crazy terrorists. For years Islamic terrorists have bedeviled its inhabitants, blowing up policemen, government officials, and most of all, tourists. Although the most infamous incident was the Bali bomb of 2002, where 202 people died (164 of them foreigners, including 88 Australians and 24 British), there have been several attacks on hotels in the capital. In 2009 suicide bombers blew themselves up at the Jakarta Ritz Carlton and Marriott, killing seven.

This was actually the second time in six years the same Marriott had been attacked – what a bum posting that must be for the manager – so these blasts were not wholly unsurprising. But what is a shock is the quality of security in place now.

As we arrived at the Meridien there were half a dozen security guards on the gate and another half dozen at the front door – a good start. Well it would have been if the guards had even attempted to take their job seriously. The man with the mirror on a stick – designed to look under cars for limpet mines and the like – walked around the taxi without once taking his eye off his mate, with whom he was sharing an amusing anecdote about something (probably blown up foreigners). True, our bags were thoroughly x-rayed on the way into the lobby, but five yards away there was another door through which locals were happily passing through, complete with heavy bags. Note to terrorists – don’t look like besuited thirty-something Brits if you’re trying to bomb a hotel. Dress like a poor farmer, hoist a bulky, anonymous sack on your back, and hey presto! – A thousand virgins await.

Despite the traffic from hell and a worrying misunderstanding of what security should look like, there is much to like about Jakarta. At least so I am told. We spent two solid days in a meeting room with no windows discussing a new skyscraper, without even a sniff of getting out to explore. The fact that it took literally hours to get anywhere – our hotel was a mile away, or 40 minutes in Jakarta traffic – further dampened our exploratory spirit.

We did get to go out to dinner though, which was a welcome turn up. Although for some reason our (excellent) Malaysian host decided to take us to an Italian restaurant, it did give us a chance to check that Indonesians have Western style  shopping malls (they do) with mid-market eateries inside (yep, tick that box too).

What was different was the service. Our waiter, a young man of about 20 and possessing thick black head of over-gelled hair, had a permanent smile and the air of someone permanently unsure about what to do next. Explaining our drinks order took quite some time, held up as it was by his incredulity at our choices – “You want water and wine?” before chuckling to himself and putting a dozen exclamation marks on his notebook – but that was nothing compared to the actual delivery of our beverages.

Despite his cock-sureness at our choices, it was literally like he had never opened a bottle of wine before. He grappled with the foil for a good six minutes before giving up and plunging the screw into the cork anyway. It is actually difficult to explain what he did next, but whatever it was, he certainly went at it with gusto. Twisting the corkscrew this way and that, he took it out and reinserted it a dozen times before apparently realising he had to turn the handle to force the screw into the cork. Even after this eureka moment we were no closer to our drink, as then decided to take a break, no doubt shagged out by the difficulty of the task.

A lovely old Jakarta building, just one of many we didn’t see

Returning after a good ten minutes, he was joined by a band of fellow waiters, all hiding their eyes and sucking their teeth in a manner more reminiscent of watching open hip surgery. But soon the perseverance paid off, and with a loud plop the cork came out; as did much of the wine, all onto the table. There was still enough for a morsel each, but the time had come to switch to beer.

Part of our chum’s unfamiliarity with opening the wine may possibly be on account of it being an alcoholic drink. This is most definitely Islamic country (the world’s most populous in fact) and it shows. Although I wasn’t counting, I would say that the vast majority of women were covered by head scarves of a variety of colours (but only one burqa). The one noise to rise above the permanent din of the traffic was the call of the mosque. And the office where we were meeting had its own prayer room, like, so I am told, a great many buildings new or old.

Religious traditions aside, and ignoring the desire of a few zealots to keep the outside world away by setting off bombs left, right and centre, one gets the impression that Indonesians are just as hungry as their neighbours for economic and social betterment. And as a Westerner the greeting we had was very warm indeed – helped no doubt by the fact that everyone we met spoke English – and it is definitely somewhere to come back to, even if just to see the worst traffic imaginable.

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