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.

1 Comment:

Kathryn Davies said...

I actually need to go turn on my AC just reading this.

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