Saturday, 9 February 2013

Dirty Magazine Pt. 7: Jakarta and home…

world-map jakarta


And welcome to the last post of ‘Dirty Magazine and my last post before I head off for India. In today’s offering I return to Jakarta, the Big Durian, the bustling and fascinating capital of Indonesia. And there I leave you, but fear not, soon Uncle Travelling Matt will be back from the bustling and fascinating capital of India. Can’t wait!

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


I awoke the following morning, strangely enough only a minute or two prior to my wake up call from the hotel staff. Although aching a little I discovered that my sickness, like that which I contracted in Cambodia exactly a year previously, had been almost wholly cured by a good, long sleep.

The train journey today was to be my last of any length in Indonesia, and my first in the so-called ‘Bisnis’ class. Quite what that was to be like, I knew not. Its price was a quarter of that of Eksekutif, which was perhaps some indication. Well, whatever, just so long as there was no TV or piped music, I would be happy.

All in all, Bisnis class, and indeed the whole journey proved to be a most enjoyable experience. For a start, there were no videos or musical accompaniments, (well, excepting the songs sung by the beggars who boarded the train at every stop), and indeed I was left wondering what Ekonomi would be like if this were Bisnis. Bisnis was what I’d imagined Ekonomi to be you see, a basic coach, (with even more basic toilets), with cracked windows and filled with locals of all shapes, sizes and colours. Hawkers plied up and down the aisle selling everything from soft drinks to screwdrivers, lunchboxes to calculators, and Teletubbies to towels. These itinerant traders, along with cripples, aged, blind and singing beggars entered the train whenever it stopped and alighted at the next station, presumably boarding the next service in the opposite direction for the journey back.

I passed the time writing, reading Robert Graves’ excellent ‘I, Claudius’ and standing in the open doorway at the end of the coach watching the world go by. And indeed, the effects of the beautiful Javan countryside, the glories and follies of Ancient Rome, the creation of a literary masterpiece (?), and the taste of Friesian Flag Chocolate Milk, (something I’d developed quite a taste for in the absence of good soft drinks), contrived to make the journey an extremely pleasant one.

The first trip that I’d made across Java almost two weeks previously had, (apart from the small section where the line ran by the coast), been, scenically-speaking, rather uninspiring. The second from Malang to Yogyakarta had started well with lots of high bridges over fast-flowing rivers and palm-clad hills, but alas, darkness had fallen all to quickly. The southern part of Java is much more mountainous than the north, and this journey turned out to be a fine one: Girder bridges over boulder-strewn streams; volcanoes in the distance shimmering in the haze; tiny mosques amongst the palm groves; terraces of flooded rice paddies with conical-hatted coolies hard at work up to their knees in water, village women drying T-shirts by the trackside, old colonial stations with platforms full of jilbabed women and swarthy gents; level-crossings where scores of motorbikes were being revved impatiently, waiting for the train to pass; mountainsides covered with rich vegetation into which the train would plunge, the result, complete darkness.

And all of that at just the right speed. Not so slow, so that one thinks that the destination shall never be reached and not so fast so that standing in the doorway, open to the elements, becomes a torment rather than a pleasure. That’s what makes train travel so perfect and it’s beyond my comprehension why so many backpackers take a bus instead, even though the prices are comparable. I assume that the reason is that most travellers never look further than the travel agencies in the backpacker ghettos for their transportation. That’s a shame. Twelve hours on a bus is a torment, the corresponding eight or nine by rail is pure pleasure.

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Travelling ekonomi to Jakarta

I had but a day left in Indonesia; a day to taste the Big Durian. Sat in a café that morning I met a fellow Englishman, who better to embark upon my tropical tasting with than a fellow Brit? He was from Rochdale, a town I knew somewhat from having a friend who hailed from it’s confines and from having taken a wrong bus once that ended up in it’s terminal. His name was, well I don’t think that I ever asked what his name was, it mattered not, we set off.

As with Surabaya, the place that the guidebook advised heading for was the old town, which in Jakarta is called Kota and is situated a couple of miles north of the Jalna Jaksa area where I was now ensconced. To reach our destination we took a train along the city’s elevated metropolitan rail system. The trains looked familiar and the Japanese notices by the doors and windows gave the reason why. These once proud lords of the Tokyo and Kyoto subway systems had been transported far away from their ordered oriental home to the balmy tropics and they looked far worse for it, with broken windows and doors that once opened automatically in Osaka, but now required a push and a pull from countless Jakartan commuters.

Kota railway station is the transportation hub of Jakarta and it’s here that the influence of the Dutch colonisers can be seen quite clearly. The grand 1920s buildings look like they would feel perfectly at home in Utrecht or Groningen, although doubtless they would be in better repair there. Outside the station surrounding the busy Jalan Jembatan Batu/ Jalan Pintu Besar Utara interchange were the proud edifices of a colonial elite. “It’s like New Delhi,” commented my Lancastrian comrade, “although the British did a far better job of it.” We walked through Nederlandstadt to Taman Fatahillah, once the heart of Batavia, (as colonial Jakarta was known). Here one truly could imagine being in the Netherlands, the peaceful leafy square, surrounded by Dutch-gabled dwellings and flanked on it’s southern side by a typical Stadthuis truly was like a mini Den Haag. The Stadthuis, once the city hall, was now a museum commemorating the history of Jakarta. We played football with some kids in the square before stepping inside to admire the colonial living quarters, paintings of former governors, photos of a long-gone Chinatown and exhibits of local music.

After our dose of colonial culture we decided to head down to the docks to see Sunda Kelapa, the port which had made the city. Traipsing through the streets of the tumbledown third world we soon spied the ships, row upon row of masts thrusting proudly towards the sky and reminding one of an era when sail was king. We took up the offer of a persistent little man in a sampan, who for a measly sum took us in and out of the huge wooden hulks of the Macassar schooners towards the entrance of the harbour and the big blue briny itself.

Weaving in-between the maids of the sea, I was reminded not of Jakarta or Indonesia at all, but of the history of my own country, the United Kingdom which, like the Dutch masters who built this harbour, was made great by the sea. If one wants to discover Britain’s maritime heritage these days, it’s easy enough. Portsmouth, Dundee, Greenwich and countless other famous ports have old sailing ships, relics of the days when Britannia ruled the waves, sat in dry docks waiting for the eager tourist to look them over. But the question I ask here, is how genuine is it all? True the ships are the actual ones that once sailed the seven seas, but were they ever so sanitised and clean, and after all, they are but one, amongst a harbour full of motor launches and the yachts of the rich. Strange as it may seem, in my opinion, the nearest that I have ever come to getting a feel of an old British port was here in Jakarta, where we drifted cautiously between countless schooners, all with paint peeling and busy with sailors loading and unloading them of their cargoes. The place of a hive of activity and not a bit of mechanisation in sight. No, perverted as it perhaps is, often one must look far afield to experience one’s own heritage. After all, why do I like the Balkans so much? Perhaps because they remind me so much of the Britain that I grew up in, with their state-monopolised buses, compartments on trains, hellish public conveniences, archaic post offices that sold stamps and doled out pensions and benefits, (and not a lot else), and roads full of aging motor cars.

My companion wished to have a look around the nearby Chinatown of Glodok after having read that they were riots there in 1998. I was less enthusiastic. Not that the culture of the Chinese didn’t interest me, it did, but I’d already seen one Chinatown in Surabaya and due to the Indonesian law prohibiting the use of Chinese characters on shop fronts, it meant that there is little outwardly visible about the Indonesia’s Chinese communities. They look much like any other shabby district of town. Nonetheless we took a tuk-tuk back to the station and then embarked upon a short walking tour of the area, (it adjoins Kota station). There was as expected little to see. Not only were Chinese signs banned, but also it was obvious that the community was trying it’s best to keep a low profile. That was understandable. Throughout the history of the city, the prosperous immigrant Chinese have frequently been the focus of popular anger when hard times have come. The Jews of Russia and Eastern Europe would probably have felt an affinity with these Oriental brethren, although the difference here is the time scale. The last pogrom in Jakarta occurred in 1998, less than four years ago. Thus, little was visible on the outside, barring a few Buddhist symbols over the doorways and the markedly Oriental appearance of the locals. Enter those swastika-adorned dwellings however, and I’m sure a different story was to be found. Alas, we had not the time, nor the invitation to do so.

Back at the station we dined on chicken and rice at a stall on one of the platforms and I purchased some old card Edmondson railway tickets for my collection. We then hopped back onto one of the old survivors from the Kyoto Underground and made our way back up to Gambir station, where we alighted and headed for Istiqlal Mosque, the city’s main mosque and the largest in South-East Asia.

The Istiqlal Mosque was another of the projects of old Sukarno, and true to the spirit of the ‘Father of the Indonesian Nation’, what it lacked in beauty, it made up for in size. This place was big, unbelievably big, and it’s vast, dark cavernous hall, (with pillars made of German steel our guide said), could accommodate ten thousand people in one sitting. And apparently it regularly did, most Fridays the Istiqlal Mosque is said to be overflowing with believers asserting that there is ‘No God but God, and Mohammed is His Prophet’.

indonesia 17

The Istiqlal Mosque

Outside the mosque I bade goodbye to the Lancastrian gent and ambled back to the Hotel Tator, where I had spent the previous night, (better, yet pricier than the Djody). I once again passed the magnificent Monas, being hassled by countless guides and people who wanted to ‘be my friend’ en route, thinking that perhaps old Soekarno did not entirely fail. True, you can look at these things as a waste of money, and in entirely logical terms they are, but in my mind there is no doubt that people need symbols. Virtually every power from time immemorial has recognised it, from the Romans to Napoleon, the Bolsheviks to the Angkors. The spiritual as well as the temporal, what would Islam be with Mecca, or the Catholic Church without the magnificence of St. Peter’s? Even in modern, advanced, present-day Britain, one of the biggest uproars in contemporary politics regards the national stadium, planned for Wembley, but years behind schedule and without the first bricks being laid. That England needs a National Stadium is rubbish, there are plenty of good stadiums around the country which more than suffice and if needs be there’s the huge state-of-the-art Millennium Stadium sat in Cardiff. But Cardiff is not in England, and England needs its symbol to proclaim to the world of its footballing prowess. No one will be satisfied until the new Wembley is opened, me included.

And Third World peoples, without the access to technology, and with dreary lives spent in unimaginable poverty, need these symbols more than anything. Sukarno could not turn Indonesia into a developed nation, a force of world economics. We know it and he knew it. He could not gave his people heaven in their daily lives but he could at least give them a glimpse of it, a monument to their greatness. After all everybody likes to be flattered. And it seems to have worked. It is his photographs, which still adorn the walls of countless Indonesian homes, not the images of the democratisers or freers of political prisoners. And his Indonesian Empire has, (East Timor excepted), stayed together. In this era of ridiculous nationalism’s with almost every province trying to declare it’s independence, the multi-ethnic, loosely-connected Indonesia of many religions and problems is still one country. The national ideology that Sukarno helped foster through such schemes as his many monuments undoubtedly helped this. It could easily have been so, so different.

Upon reaching the hotel, I collected my bags and took a tuk-tuk to Gambir Station where a Damri bus was waiting. As night fell we slowly made our way through the great Indonesian metropolis, out onto the highway and towards the pleasant air hub of Soekarno-Hatta. Progress was once more relatively trouble-free except for paying the air tax, where they would not accept credit cards or Korean currency, the only money that I had left. Eventually however, after inquiring at virtually every bank on concourse I found one that would change won, and so rupiyah in hand, I paid the fee, and retreated to a café for a last cup of tea before boarding my plane home.

Whilst waiting in Incheon Airport on the way back, I was unexpectedly accosted by a strange-looking gentleman who kept yelling “Hravtsva!” at me, whilst slapping me on the back. The reason soon became clear. ‘Hratstva’ means ‘Croatia’ in Croatian, and I was wearing a rip-off Croatia shirt that I’d picked up in Malang. ‘Why would you buy a Croatia shirt?’ I hear you ask, well, it’s simple…

The 2002 Football World Cup is being held, jointly, in Japan and Korea, and the Croatian National Side were to be based in Toyama, a place that also happens to be where I reside. What’s more, the only World Cup ticket that I could get my hands on was for a Croatia-Mexico match being held in nearby Niigata. Thus I’d figured that it was perhaps a good idea to try and fit in with the locals. And judging by the reactions of my newly found Croatian Comrade, I was doing quite a good job of it.

My friend turned out to be a sailor, who had just finished a six-month stint at sea and was on his way home to Zagreb. What’s more, it happened to be his birthday, and he was in the mood for celebration. The fact that I wasn’t Croatian apparently mattered not. “England football good!” he exclaimed. “Beckham, Owen! And before, Lineker, Banks, Moore, Hurst! Nice game! Liverpool Champions of Europe four times! Nice team! Before I was working together with England man, he is Sunderland fan. ‘Liverpool?’ I say. ‘Liverpool shit!’ he say. ‘Liverpool shit, Manchester United shit and Arsenal shit! But number one big shit is Newcastle!’ Oh my God! ‘Fucking Newcastle shit!’ he is saying, he hate Newcastle. England good football, very good. England man, we drink together!”

I was led to a café where another Croatian was sat, clearly less jubilant than the birthday boy, but equally sozzled nonetheless. I was introduced, the beers bought and we spent a pleasant hour or so, those two sailors and I, talking football, (English and Croatian), World Cups, long sea voyages, the girls of South-East Asia, the Yugoslavian wars and Eastern Europe in general, using a strange cocktail of pidgin English and Bulgarian, a tongue almost identical to Serbo-Croat.

It was a slightly inebriated Matt that boarded the aeroplane back to Osaka. My head, not being in its usual state couldn’t concentrate on a book, so instead I sat back and ran through the previous two weeks in my mind. It had been interesting, exciting, (and indeed slightly hairy at times), and entirely fulfilling. I’d learnt that I could travel on my own, and that it was far from a being a lonely experience, if anything quite the opposite. In Indonesia at least, (although it’s probably quite different in more reserved countries), a lone traveller is fair game to be pounced upon and ‘Hello Mistered’, even if he wants not to be. No, loneliness was definitely not a problem.

And I also learnt a little about Indonesia, a country of huge proportions and population, though with little political and economic clout and oft ignored by the wider world. It shares many similarities with its neighbours, but there are countless differences also. Few Third World countries for example, share such a mix of faiths with, (yes, I know that there are problems, but considering the potential), relatively little strife. The Western Powers, particularly the U.S. should not be so quick in lumping all Muslims together as fanatics. The faith certainly does have it’s extremists it’s true, but very few are found to be living amongst the islands of Indonesia. Indeed, the fervour of religious feeling there, in my opinion, pales in comparison with that displayed in the Roman Catholic Philippines next door, where governments are frequently overthrown by ‘People and Prayer Power’. In Manila, arguably the most powerful person is not the President, but the Cardinal. In Jakarta the Islamic clerics do not seem to wield such influence.

But what was my overall impression of it all? Would I be coming back someday? Is Indonesia the country of my dreams? Or my nightmares, perhaps? Well…

In answer the first question, maybe, who knows what course the future will take? I’d certainly like to see the kids of Labuhan Lombok again later in life, and so I suppose a lot depends on whether they keep in touch. I wouldn’t mind meeting up with Mr. Aki, ‘wife’ and also Agoom too. But Indonesia itself, for some reason, unlike it’s neighbour to the north-east, was not a country that I fell in love with. Why that was, I don’t know, all the ingredients were there, but somehow they didn’t quite gel right. Perhaps it’s because all tropical islands start to look the same after a while, who knows, I really can’t say? No, I’m not bothered about returning to sightsee. I saw all that I wanted to and there are new roads to travel now.

And then there was my encounter with the sailors at the airport. Despite our linguistic travails, we’d clicked in a way that rarely happens between Asian people and me. I was reminded of a life that revolves around beer, football, talking about women and World Cups, conversations full of confrontation and people with long memories of past historical and political injustices. Not necessarily all good things it’s true, but extremely familiar. The fact remains that no matter how long I spend in Asia, how many expeditions I take to various countries in the continent and no matter how hard I try to integrate and interact with the local populous, a barrier is always there. A big barrier it may not be, stronger at some times than others, but a barrier nonetheless. That barrier is because I am different, for good or bad, and I always will be different. That is because I am British. That is because I am a European. Indonesia reminded that the world is a huge place, that Asia extends far further than Japan and that one’s preconceptions of an unknown country are often quite far off the mark. The Croatians however reminded me of Europe.

It was time to go home.

Copyright © 2002, Matthew E. Pointon

July, 2002, Osawano, Japan


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