Sunday, 6 January 2013

Dirty Magazine Pt. 2: Jakarta

world-map jakarta


So far Dirty Magazine has proven to be extremely popular so here’s the second part where i actually reach the country of destination, Indonesia and explore its pulsating capital, Jakarta.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all the parts of this travelogue

Pt. 1: Seoul

Pt. 2: Jakarta

Pt. 3: Surabaya

Pt. 4: Sumbawa and Lombok

Pt. 5: Bali

Pt. 6: Yogyakarta

Pt. 7: Jakarta and home…

dirty magazine map


Up early the following morning, I managed to enjoy the whole trip to Incheon Airport fully awake. From then it was through the customs and onto the plane that would take me to Jakarta. The flight was uneventful, although the film, (which I expected to be awful, it was about some military prison), which was called ‘The Castle’ was rather entertaining.

Airports are, generally speaking, not the most inspiring places on earth. In fact, for most people, (particularly my Vietnam travelling companions Jen and Catherine), they are most likely quite the opposite. Airports mean checks, formalities, hassle and waiting and usually generate feelings of stress rather than elation. Nevertheless, when you’ve been to a fair few, you start to be able to tell the difference between the good and the bad ones, and I, (in true Nick Hornby ‘High Infidelity’ style), have started to make my unconscious list of ports for air travel. Bottom, without a doubt, comes Kerkyra Kapodistras (Corfu), which, even with it’s new Departures terminal, is appallingly inadequate when one considers the traffic that it has to deal with and the fact that it is in an E.U. country, supposedly part of the most advanced region on earth.

Whilst it may not come quite top of the list, certainly a good contender for best airport must be Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatto. Some airports such as the new one at Incheon that I’d just passed through and the one at Kansai where I’d started my journey, one expects to be fairly nice, but Soekarno-Hatta came as a pleasant surprise. Sparkling and brand-new it was not, but nestled amongst palm groves and Garuda Indonesia jumbo jets, I found attractive terminal buildings constructed in a very Indonesian style, with red tiled roofs and dark concrete which, from a distance, looked like the wood used to build traditional houses. Inside, it was rather dark, but filled with decorations and sculptures, all in a traditional style, and the progress through the immigration checks was efficient. No complaints from me anyway, and a rap on the knuckles of Lonely Planet who described the place as a “dull affair”. Jakarta’s air hub was actually the best that I’ve been through in a developing country, and what it lacks in plushness and amenities compared with Asia’s new First World terminals, it more than makes up for in character.

jakrata airport

Soekarno-Hatta Airport

Once out of the airport however, things ran far less smoothly. I boarded the Damri bus to the city centre, but alas I was far from being the only one, and I ended up spending most of the journey standing up, wedged in-between the gear stick and the luggage rack, with my baggage between my feet. Still, it was cheap, and although my unenviable position meant that I did not get the best view of the passing scenery, I did have plenty of opportunity to look at the other vehicles on the road.

You can tell a lot about a country’s economy and politics by the cars driven by it’s populous. In Japan, with it’s huge automotive industry and protectionist policies, almost every car is homegrown, whereas in Britain the virtually all vehicles are E.U. built, (including the Toyotas, Nissans and Fords).Bulgaria, with it’s previous close ties to the USSR is full of Ladas, (though more EU cars are appearing daily), and Romania, previously under the nationalistic Ceaucescu, is today full of Dacias. In Albania, where cars were illegal for the general public until 1990, one finds a dearth of stolen Mercedes, whereas in the Philippines the automobiles of the former occupiers America, and of nearby Japan. Nowhere however, (in my experience at least), displays the variety that Indonesia’s roads have to offer: Toyotas, Fords, General Motors, Hyundais, Nissans, Fiats, Volvos, Rovers, Daewoos, Chryslers, Indian tuk-tuks (you know what I mean, those motorised tricycles that ply the streets of India’s great cities and were famously ridden by Bond in ‘Octopussy’), Ladas, Mercedes, Moskviches, some ancient home-grown lorries, all jostling for space with a myriad of motorbikes, tricycle rickshaws, pedestrians, mobile stalls, push bikes and beggars. More inspiring examples of globalisation can be found no doubt, but few so accurate I would imagine.

The bus finally drew into Gambir bus terminal, one of the city’s main bus stations and nestled neatly between the elevated Gambir railway station and Sukarno’s masterpiece, Lapangan Merdekan, with it’s Monas thrusting itself proudly towards the heavens.

Sukarno is undoubtedly the greatest of Indonesia’s few Presidents and a man who more than left his mark on the country in general and Jakarta in particular. The great man was a Javan himself, from the east of the island and an early nationalist whilst the country was still the Dutch East Indies. In 1929 he formed the Partai Nasional Indonesia, and during the Japanese Occupation (1942-5), he rose to prominence amongst the (Japanese encouraged) nationalist leaders. On 17th August 1945, in Jakarta, he proclaimed the Independence of the new Indonesian Republic. It was not until four years, and many bloody battles against the former colonial power the Dutch, and the British, however, that an Independent Indonesia finally became a reality, and when the red and white flag was raised at Jakarta’s Istana Merdeka, (Freedom Palace), on 27th December, 1949, Sukarno was the President. Sukarno’s reign was a long and with many ups and downs, the lowest point perhaps being the ‘Slaughter of the Communists’, which started on the 30th September 1965 and claimed the lives of around half a million Communist Party (previously Sukarno’s allies) members and supporters. Nonetheless, the reign was long, lasting until 1968, and these days Sukarno is remembered favourably by most Indonesians, (or at least, most non-Communists). Throughout his stay in power, Sukarno, ever the nationalist, erected countless statues and symbols of the new, powerful and independent Indonesia, most of which can still be seen in cities around the country. None however is quite so potent as the Monas, set in the centre of Sukarno’s new and grand public space in Jakarta, the Lapangan Merdekan, (Freedom Park). This 132 metre high column of Italian marble (very Indonesian…) and top by a huge golden flame, (which utilises 35 kilogrammes of gold leaf), was started in 1961 and eventually completed in 1975. It’s phallic design is said to represent the new nation’s independence and strength, (though pessimists claim, more Sukarno’s staying power between the sheets), and despite the criticism, it’s now the city’s number one landmark. Whatever, it impressed me, who has always been a sucker for the odd bit of totalitarian architecture, and I decided to have a proper look at it later that evening.

Lapangan Merdekan


First however, I had business to attend to, that business being finding a bed for the night and train out of town the following day. I had no fixed itinerary in my mind at that point, but having consulted the guidebook I had discovered that most boats to most of Indonesia’s many islands left from the port of Surabaya, a city at the opposite end of Java to Jakarta. Therefore, that would be my next port-of-call; I could explore the capital on the way back.

I hailed a tuk-tuk and asked him to take me to Jalna Jaksa, the city’s backpacker ghetto and the place with the cheapest hotels. Having had some experience with backpacker ghettos in the past, I decided not to opt for the cheapest place in the book, nor the one’s that came highly recommended, instead plumping for the Hotel Djody. I did not choose wisely, the place was dirty, dreary and most annoyingly, the bedroom light was located directly above the ceiling fan so that one either had to try and read a book in a light that would give an epileptic fits or sweat to death. For the time being I chose neither, and instead headed off out to Gambir station to buy a train ticket.

I woke early that morning showered and breakfasted on Indonesian Fried Rice, (washed down with the most disgusting glass of orange juice that I’d ever tasted), in tourist town, before hailing a tuk-tuk to take me to Gambir railway station.

The journey out through Jakarta was one of those where the joys of travel, and train travel in particular, are confirmed beyond doubt. Sadly I’d only been able to get Eksekutiv Class the night before, which meant being confined to a plastic, air-conditioned, soft-music-playing capsule of a carriage. Luckily however, it had seen better days and one of the automatic doors had not shut, so I stood in the aperture and gazed out at the passing sights.

The great teeming metropolii of the Third World all share many similarities in appearance and make-up. The primate cities are what the geographer calls them, bloated by massive immigration from the provinces, swelled beyond all comprehension by the countless rural poor all seeking fame and fortune amongst the bright lights, far away from their fields and villages. It is here that the races mix, the revolutions occur and the staggering differences between the rich and poor can be viewed. Jakarta was no exception.

Jakarta’s early beginnings were around the port of Sunda Kelapanear to the present day Kota. When the Portuguese arrived in 1522 the city was already a busy port, part of the Pajajaran Dynasty, the Hindu West Javan Kingdom. In 1527 the city was taken by the fearsome Sunan Gunungjati, a Muslim warrior saint who renamed Sunda Kelapa, Jayakarta, ‘City of Victory’. By the seventeenth century both the British and the Dutch had trading centres in the city that competed viciously with one another for power. In 1618, the Jayakartans attacked the Dutch with the aid of the British. The plan backfired however, the Banten Sultan, (now ruler of the area), was angry with the Jayakartan leaders for entering into an unofficial alliance with the British. The attackers departed and the Dutch renamed their fortress ‘Batavia’. The following year, the Netherlanders retaliated under the mighty Pieterszoon Coen who stormed Jayakarta and burnt it to the ground. He then rebuilt his fortress and started to create a new city around it. Although attacked on numerous occasions, the Dutch never submitted and eventually Batavia became the capital of the Dutch East Indies.

The city that the Dutch built on the swampland surrounding their fort was undoubtedly inspired by their own reclaimed cities in Northern Europe. Countless canals were constructed, (many of which carried more disease than cargo), and tall houses with Dutch-style crenulated roofs. Despite the disease however, the city expanded quickly, with Indonesians and also Chinese merchants flocking from far and wide, drawn by the commercial opportunities offered there. The Chinese in particular suffered much from the racist attitudes of the locals who vented their anger on the foreigners when the pressures of over-population and other tensions rose. On October 9th 1740 the people rose and murdered five thousand Chinese which caused the Dutch to move them all outside the city walls to the area of Glodok, where even today a strong Chinese community exists. The persecutions however, have continued, the latest, on 12th May 1998 left Glodok looking like a war zone. The death toll was over a thousand.

The rule of the Dutch came to an end in 1942 when the Japanese occupied Batavia and restored its old name, ‘Jakarta’. Although the Dutch returned after the war, the fire of independence had been lit and in 1950 Jakarta became the capital of the new Republic of Indonesia. At the time it’s population was just under a million.

Since the establishment of Indonesia, the city of Jakarta has undoubtedly changed beyond all recognition. Partly, is due to Sukarno, the first President who wanted to transform the sprawling port into a potent symbol of the new Indonesia, and a major world centre. Sports stadiums, (for the 1962 Asia Games), the biggest mosque in South-East Asia, the fourteen storey Hotel Indonesia and the Jalna Thamrin motorway were all constructed. The centrepiece however, was the Lapangan Merdeka Park, the vast expanse of green in the city’s heart, with the Monas rising triumphantly upwards.

Great as Sukarno’s changes were though however, the real changes to Jakarta were wreaked by the Indonesian people who flocked to the capital in droves. Today the population stands at over nine million and the metropolis is a sprawling expanse of shantytowns and humble dwellings.

The train pulled slowly out of the elevated Gambir station only ten minutes later than the scheduled time. All around stood the gleaming towers of commerce and the high-rise, high-class apartments of the high-living Indonesian elite. In the centre of the city stood the gleaming Monas, looking as triumphant in the day as it had done at night. I gazed down upon streets full of Japanese cars, tuk-tuks and rusty taxis, all rushing around and, (unlike me), with a definite purpose in mind. Jilbabed women, half-naked children and nut-brown railway workers looked up at the fat foreigner in the train doorway and waved with delight. The train picked up speed and took me onwards, into the suburbs, past packed commuter stations and Ekonomi trains full to the brim with people. The trains betrayed their origins by the Chinese and Japanese characters on the sides, but there was no sense of Oriental order and efficiency about them now. People hung out of the open doors and sat nonchalantly on the roves, mere centimetres away from the lethal electric cables that gave the trains their power.

The buildings had changed now. Gone were the glistening, clean office blocks and dwellings of the successful, go-ahead Jakarta. The houses now were small, wooden structures, surrounded by palms. It reminded me a little of the Philippines but there were some differences. The roves, instead of being constructed from palm leaves or corrugated iron, all sported beautiful red tiles instead, that looked radiant and clean under the tropical sun. I’d seen such tiles before, somewhere on my travels, where was it? That’s it, it was the Netherlands of course! But wait a minute, Indonesia used to be Dutch, the Dutch East Indies. Were the tiles their legacy here, or was it just coincidence? Whereas the Spanish left churches and the British, railway lines, had the Dutch bequeathed red roof tiles to their colonies? Somehow the idea seemed to fit in with the practical and understated nature of the Netherlanders.

Slowly the train chugged east. We trundled onwards through the city that they call the ‘Big Durian’. Durian, the foul-smelling tropical fruit, loved by some and hated by others; the description was apt. A refuse filled river, terrible slums of shantytowns with dirt roads, ramshackle dwellings punctuated every so often by a tiny, well-kept, red-roofed mosque, tipped by a gleaming crescent moon. A busy road, motorbikes waiting by the barrier for us to pass, a large market by the roadside; cheap T-shirts, vegetables, fruit, cigarettes and what’s that? Even a store full of cycle helmets! A huge factory, (what does it produce, I’ll never know?), palm trees, a concrete highway, a church, a mosque, more shacks, telegraph wires, a sea of red roof tiles.

The city thinned out and the train engineer came and shut the door. I returned to my carriage with it’s tinted windows, (to keep out the gazes of the curious poor), and piped music and settled down. I read, wrote and watched Java past by my window. This was the northern part of the island; flat as the proverbial pancake, pious and populated; lush rice paddies with cone-hatted coolies, palm groves and more towns of red roofs. The train stopped only three times throughout the entire journey; the first I assume was unscheduled. It was at a place called Haurgeulis, so small that it wasn’t mentioned on the map.

As I sat there, I began to notice that it was getting hot. ‘Good, they’ve turned down the air-con’ I thought to myself. But this was too hot; I started sweating. I was hungry too, time for the buffet car thought I. I arose as the train thundered over a bridge that crossed a mighty, muddy river and walked to the end of the coach. I pressed the button on the automatic door, but nothing happened. I pressed again. There was about as much action as a Virginia Woolf novel. And it was getting hotter.

“It’s broken,” explained a helpful speaker of English. “This car, all broken doors. The air, very hot!”

“Very hot,” I agreed. So we were imprisoned, entombed within the sweltering plastic prison of coach number two of the Argo Bromo express train. Well, ok, it wasn’t that serious. The engineer came and freed us after about half an hour or so, but I must admit, I was beginning to get a wee bit worried; images of suffocating on a Javan express train flowing through my mind.

When release did eventually come, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I didn’t need to venture to the buffet car at all. This was Eksekutiv Class on the Argo Bromo you see. They brought dinner to you, on little plastic trays, airline-style. The food was uninspiring however, but it was paid for and it filled a gap. The sugary tea however, did nothing to quench my thirst, so afterwards I retired to the Buffet car anyway where I consumed two cups of the world’s worst tea, and sat reading the accounts of Britain’s finest contemporary writers who were all describing Sudan in a charity book that I’d picked up at Hong Kong airport entitled The Weekenders. After reading that, Indonesia felt positively rich and developed and once more I thought about how inaccurate and misleading the term ‘third world’ is. There can be as big a difference between two third world countries as there can between the UK and Indonesia; at least Indonesia has houses, roads, railways, some industry plus a fairly reliable water and power supply. Sudan it seems, would be grateful for any of those.

Talking of Africa, strangely enough, like the hotel the previous night, this journey reminded me a lot of my trip to Egypt five years previously. The flat, lush green Javan countryside dotted with mosques bears many resemblances to the Nile Valley along which I travelled in a train not too dissimilar to the Argo Bromo. The only difference was the absence of the mighty river which the Egyptian train would cross over every so often on a huge girder bridge. But Java did have plenty of smaller, equally muddy waterways to make up for it, I suppose.

One city that the train stopped at, Semarang, looked like a most-interesting place. Before we pulled into the station, I glimpsed a large canal and along each side were ranged Dutch-style houses. At the end stood a fine town hall; there was certainly no doubt as to who the colonisers here had been. But alas, time to stop I did not have and onwards I went, the train hugging the seashore for one pleasant section of the journey, the deep blue of the Java Sea contrasting beautiful with the greens of the island. Another strange site a little later, as the sun was setting, was of a massive flame burning to the north, several hundred metres high. What it was a knew not, though I suspect, as Indonesia does have considerable natural resources, it was connected with the oil industry. Whatever the case, it certainly looked eerie in the fading sunlight. Slowly but surely however, darkness fell and for the final hour or two I could see nothing, so I merely sat and read.

Next part: Pt. 3: Surabaya

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