Random thoughts on Indonesia

Sunday, May 27, 2018

I’m still not really succeeding at being a tourist in Jakarta, and time’s a-wastin’. I’m clinging desperately to five-day work weeks, but that’s only going to last until rehearsals start in earnest and it’ll be time to put my head down and not look up until September. Until then I should really be taking advantage of my weekends to do Things. Colleagues are known to bring a carryon bag to the office on Friday and go straight from their desks to the airport to visit Bali or Yogyakarta or go diving or see Komodo Dragons or something. Maybe this is a sign that the novelty of this sort of work is wearing off for me - the fact that all I really want to do on a weekend is sleep in, make myself a nice breakfast, relax in air-conditioned comfort and maybe sit in a quiet coffee shop with the crossword. Still even with that agenda, there are things I can tell you about because everyday life continues and sometimes it’s different or notable or just plain weird.

On the freelance nature of traffic control:

I may have mentioned before that traffic in Jakarta is a problem. In fact, it's simply an inescapable fact of life. There are too many cars on the road, which, added to a seemingly infinite number of motorcycles that fill any gap like an angry swarm of insects, added to a somewhat approximate sense of the rules of the road mean that something as simple as turning or parking can become a real challenge.

Here’s where the entrepreneurial spirit emerges in the form of the freelance traffic warden. Known locally as “Coin Police” or “Parking Masters” these are men who stand at intersections or turning points or parking spots and direct traffic. Note that I’m not talking about actual uniformed municipal police here. Those also exist in a small number of places, but the freelance guys are much more common.

Here’s how it works. Your car approaches an intersection - often this is a designated place for a u-turn, which are a very common here. Standing in the road, among the moving vehicles, will be a guy who’s basically putting this body between you and the oncoming cars to help you filter into the flow of traffic. He waves his arms and holds up a hand to try and stop or slow the cars enough that you can merge. Sometimes it works, sometimes he gets ignored. He does this for tips, usually between 2,000 and 5,000 rupiah, which is between 10 and 30 pence. So if you're inclined, you roll down the window and slip the guy a bit of cash as you roll past.

This is an exceptionally well-equipped guy in Jember, complete with hi-vis vest and flag. His corner was pretty slow, making me wonder how this line of work could ever pay off, especially with the overhead of flag and vest to consider.

Here’s another guy in Jember, who’s even got a bucket for collecting his money. Again, this is a very tame intersection. In Jakarta it’s a much more hectic scene.

The Coin Police also work a parking angle, where they’ll stop traffic to allow you to turn into a spot or help you exit and merge back into traffic. The parking guys also get some money for the actual "rental" of the parking spot. I assume it’s entirely unregulated and simply a case of one guy having a “patch” he works by general agreement, but who knows? Maybe there’s a central ministry that assigns dominion over parking spots on a fair rota. (Sure…)

I find the whole thing alternately charming and terrifying. But I do have a soft spot for the guys who works one particular intersection that’s on my morning 5k running route.

Here’s my guy!

Recently on morning runs I’ve been packing 1,000 rupiah in coins and giving it to the guy at this intersection as I run past. I figure anything I can do to help cross smoothly and easily is worth it. However, this is highly unusual or perhaps even unprecedented. I told some local colleagues about my habit and they found it utterly hilarious that I would tip the coin police as a pedestrian. But I find it fun to think about this guy going home at the end of a shift and telling his buddies about the crazy giant foreign woman who tips him when she runs past. I’m going to make an impression anyways, so why not?

On the horrors of the food court:

I know I talked about inappropriate cheese already but I really can’t let this particular nugget go without a special mention. The food hall in the big mall next door has a lot of odd offerings that I’ve yet to tell you about. For instance, there’s the Cheese Tea (Actual slogan: “Where cake meets cheese. Yum!”) and there’s the Pizza Cones (Actually overheard: “The macaroni was… unexpected”) and squid balls and… well I could go on and on. Recently a cheap-and-cheerful takeaway sushi place has popped up and I’ve taken advantage on a couple nights when I couldn’t be bothered to cook. It’s definitely on the low-rent end of the sushi spectrum, but even so, I was shocked and appalled to see this on offer.

This is exactly what is looks like. Half a processed cheese slice on top of sushi rice, drizzled with yet more plastic cheese, this time in liquid form. For the love of all that is holy people… how can this actually be a thing? Words fail me.

And it doesn’t stop there, because you can get the same thing in a roll! Please Indonesia! Please stop! And Japan… where’s the quality control here? This is your thing. Surely you should have some kind of monitoring system in place to prevent these kind of atrocities.

On the holy month of Ramadan:

And finally, Ramadan Mubarek! Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and is set aside as a period of fasting and increased piety for Muslims. Observance of Ramadan is considered one of the Five Pillars of Islam and this is the first time I’ve been in a really religious Muslim country during the holy month. (Azerbaijan is a much more secular place so there was little impact on day to day life.) The chief feature of Ramadan is the fast, which is observed during daylight hours, meaning that no food or drink is consumed between sunrise and sunset (and yes that includes water, which in a country with a climate like this must be particularly challenging). Fasting is mandatory for all adult Muslims (with a few exceptions). The term sawm is used to refer to fasting but it translates more literally as “refrain” which encompasses a more general abstinence from more than just food and drink, but also smoking, sex, impure thoughts and evil deeds.

My first inkling that things would be a bit different during Ramadan was when I went for dinner and ordered a beer to accompany my meal. It was after sunset, but even so the waiter informed me that because it’s Ramadan, they serve beer in a coffee mug. Because… I don’t really know. I guess because everyone is trying to be more devout so they want to conceal the fact that alcohol is being drunk. Also, some local restaurants in the area that have outdoor patios put up curtains between the patio and the street during the day. I suppose this is to shield those fasting from seeing those who aren’t.

Mmmmm... mug o' beer!

Also, a notice appeared last week at the hotel informing us that a special breakfast buffet would be available from 3:30am to 5:30am for sahur - the pre-fast morning meal.

That little sticker correcting the start date is probably because the start of Ramadan is based on visual sighting of the crescent moon so can only be estimated until it actually happens.

More significant though, is breaking the fast at sunset, called iftar in arabic, but known in Indonesia as buku puasa. Apparently it’s traditional to break the fast first by eating an odd number of dates. So when I and some colleagues went out to watch the royal wedding at a local ex-pat bar and had beer and curry, they brought us a little plate of dates first (because I’d ordered the special “break your fast” thali tray, also thankfully available to the non-observant).

(Aside - and at that moment I was struck once again with how odd my life is sometimes. Sitting in a quasi-Irish pub in Jakarta with American, Irish and Australian colleagues, eating a buku puasa of curry and watching an English prince marry an American actress. It reminded me of a dinner not so long ago in a Georgian restaurant in Azerbaijan when my companions were Greek and Australian and we watched a Russian news network’s coverage of Donald Trump being sworn in. I guess if they gave out points for cross-cultural-ness I’d have a pretty healthy balance.)

And cheers to a good thali tray! Not quite up to the level of Adam’s Curry in Baku, but we take what we can get.

Anyway, back to Ramadan. There hasn’t been much change to the routine in the office. However many of the local staff are fasting so us infidels have been asked to eat our lunches and drink our coffee in a spare meeting room instead of stuffing our faces in front of our more devout colleagues. Ramadan lasts for a lunar month, so this will continue until mid June when there’s a big holiday - the most important of the year. Edul Fitri, also known as Lebaran in Indonesia, is the feast of fast-breaking. It’s the rough cultural analogue to Christmas in Western culture, not because of any religious equivalence, but simply because it’s the longest holiday of the year and the one where most people travel home. This means all our local staff have about a week off and much of the normal activity in the country will shut down while people celebrate with friends and family. I'll be taking advantage of this lull in activity to sneak in a week’s vacation before the real madness starts, at a location that promises to be highly blog-worthy, as long as I can find the time to write about it.

And that's all I've got for you this week. I think I've got one or two posts left in me before I abandon the blog again until the end of this job, so enjoy it while it lasts. In the mean time I'm off to the mall for a snack that definitely will not include processed cheese slices. 

On the difficulty of being a tourist in Jakarta

Sunday, May 13, 2018

I really did try. I had a recent Sunday off from work and I was determined not to just hang around at home or do another lap of the nearby mall, which is like the second home for all of us on this gig. It’s about a three minute walk away and has air conditioning, coffee shops, food markets, restaurants, movie theatres and all the other trappings of a normal western mall. But I wanted to break out and see a bit more of Jakarta. Because that’s what we do here at Go Stay Work Play Live. It’s kind of the what it says on the tin.

So I busted out the trusty Lonely Planet and looked up the top sights for Jakarta and decided on a trip to Kota. Billed by the blue bible as "the hub of Dutch colonial Indonesia", it sounded promising:
“Despite its nooks of fun and culture, to the uninitiated Jakarta can feel overwhelming and its gifts inaccessible. Kota is where they are easy to find.”
Erm. Sure. First, it took about 45 minutes in a taxi to get from the hotel to Taman Fatahillah, the central square. Because even though it was Sunday the traffic was still not easy and the distance was still not short. I’ll also admit that I made a tactical error in hanging around the hotel for the morning, because by the time I got to Kota it was early afternoon and the temperature was somewhere between scorching and surface-of-the-sun. It was about right for making a tuna melt on the cobblestones.

The square itself is large, and surrounded by big old crumbly colonial buildings which have definitely seen better days. Mostly the central area was empty with people huddled in the small scraps of shade around the edges. Or at least most of them were. Some people were riding neon painted bicycles aimlessly/shakily around the square.

I didn’t get the story with these bikes. I guess you rent them? Plus it seems along with the use of the bike, you got to wear the floppy hat or the pith helmet, so that’s fun.

There are a few museums around the Taman Fatahillah, including the Museum Bank Indonesia which gets a reasonable nod from the LP, and the Jakarta History Museum, which was described as “a poorly presented museum of peeling plasterwork and lots of heavy, carved ebony and teak furniture from the Dutch Colonial period.” I plumped for the third option - the plucky Puppet Museum - which celebrates Indonesia’s long history of wayang or shadow puppets. It was housed in another big old colonial building dating from 1912 and somewhat kack-handedly converted into the museum. However, admission was a mere 5000 rupiah (25 pence) and it was out of the sun and even had one or two air-conditioned rooms, so I was happy to give it a chance.

Wayang is the Indonesia word for puppet, and wayang kulit is the particularly Javanese style where the puppets are flat articulated pieces made from buffalo leather and controlled by rods. (Kulit means skin or leather.) There’s also a style called wayang golek where the puppets are three-dimensional. In 2003 Indonesia’s tradition of wayang was designated by UNESCO as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, though apparently traditional shows are on the decline and it’s harder for the master puppeteers (dalang) to find young people to take up the art form.

The puppets themselves are incredibly intricate and sometimes even painted, though mostly they never appear in front of the curtain (they are shadow puppets, after all).

See how intricate they are? This one isn’t painted but the cutout detail is incredible, especially considering this whole piece is only about a foot and a half high. The curving spine that curls up behind the head is always shaped like that and is made from buffalo horn.

I missed the weekly 10am Sunday wayang performance, so had to just cruise the display cases and try to interpret the slightly garbled and opaque English translations that appeared intermittently. All in all it was a bit sad and faded, which turned out to be the basic theme of the day.

It all just felt sort of thrown together and unloved.

After the puppet museum I poked around outside a bit but there was very little happening. There were a few small vendors selling trinkets or street food and there were a few horse-draw carts you could hire for a ride around the area. And there was the equivalent of the street near Covent Garden where all the living statues hang out. Mostly, though, it felt like the big buildings were abandoned or at least very underused, or possibly turning to compost. Eventually I ended up at Cafe Batavia, a historic restaurant that overlooks one corner of the square where I gratefully retreated for an air-conditioned break, which was the most pleasant part of the day.

The large shuttered windows look down onto the square. Though the cafe only opened in 1993, the building started life as an administrative office of the Dutch East India Company, and they’ve definitely tapped into that colonial vibe. I had some nice steamed dumplings and a very refreshing glass of fresh watermelon juice while underpaid servants fanned me with giant banana leaves and I commented loudly about how hard it is to get good help these days. Trying to keep in the spirit of the place, you know?

After lunch I decided to try and see the other notable site of the area, Kali Besar, the canal that was once a trading hub in the VOC era. (VOC is the Dutch acronym for the Dutch East India Company). I figured it’s a canal, so I really had to check it out, right? The LP promised it was lined with once-grand homes of the wealthy and featured the last remaining Dutch drawbridge, endearingly called the Chicken Market Bridge. So even though I was sweaty and uncomfortable 1.7 seconds after leaving Cafe Batavia, I schlepped my way to the canal.

It’s gorgeous. Or at least it might be gorgeous, though it’s impossible to tell because the whole thing is shrouded in solid steel fencing. I think there is some kind of refurbishment going on, probably linked to the Asian Games.

I did eventually find the Chicken Market Bridge, though it too was unaccessible. This shot was taken from a nearby traffic bridge.

I did finally get access to the waterside in an area where the fencing hadn’t reached. You can see there’s great potential.

And that's really the overwhelming impression of the area - one of unrealised potential. In a place with more money the whole neighbourhood would already have been intensely redeveloped and be teeming with cafes and boutique hotels and gelato bars and places selling handmade batik and fridge magnets. And the plucky puppet theatre would be clean and brightly lit with impeccably curated displays and running shows on the half hour.

By the time I’d seen what there was to see of the canal I was utterly done. I know I go on about it but the heat and humidity here really is ridiculous and draining. So by the time I’d made it back to the square to try and find a taxi I was pretty fed up. That’s when I got stopped by an entire class of kids and their teachers who were all there to practice their English with the foreigners visiting the square. (This had actually happened early in my visit too, though those kids came as single spies and not in battalions.) So I stopped in the middle of the square in the blazing sun surrounded by a horde of 10-year-olds on a mission. And I waited while their teachers urged them forward and each one approached with their clip board and shyly asked me one of four stock questions. And then I signed each of their papers while unsuccessfully trying not to drip sweat on them and wondered how they could actually be wearing jackets while nearby a stray dog spontaneously combusted.

And then I took a selfie, of course.

So even though I was drenched and deflated and kind of bummed out by the day, those kids gave me the boost I needed to find a main street and call a taxi and slump gratefully in the air conditioned back seat while the driver tried and failed to find the fastest route back to the hotel. And when I eventually did made it back I took what I think was a well-earned nap. I suppose I may need to give Kota another chance one day. Maybe when it's cloudy and I can find someone to follow me around fanning me with a giant banana leaf while simultaneously spritzing me with chilled mineral water and carrying my drink.