Monday, July 02, 2007

stuck inside of Semanggi with the Soekarno-Hatta blues again

Yesterday I blew my nose and this huge black bit of gunk came out…lovely.

But you get that in Jakarta…the relentless dirty yellow and grey air is an obvious downside to one of the world’s most fascinating and vibrant big cities. And big it certainly is. The official figure is twenty three million but nobody actually believes that it’s anything close to that number. The figure everybody throws at you, from taxi drivers to diplomats is closer to thirty, and the truth may lie somewhere in between I guess, if anyone really knows. Whatever it is, that yellowy grey fog, much of which comes from the untempered exhaust fumes (vague attempts to officially control it have come to naught) that seem to spew out of almost every vehicle but in particular the multitudes of buses and bajaj is both omnipresent and choking. On Wednesday evening last three of us, after coffee, and naively believing it was only a few hundred metres, walked from Aksara, along Jalan Raya Kemang for some two kilometres or so. It was far further than we planned to walk, but, despite the light rain which began towards the end and then intensified, we did so. The footpath on the way, what there was of it, was broken and blocked here and OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         there, including sector with rolled barbed wire, was no reasonable way anyone could walk on it for any distance, so you spend eighty percent of your time on the road dodging the fume spewing vehicles rolling past you in an endless nose to tail line. It was pretty awful but you soon realise that this is the way eighty percent of Jakarta’s millions live…the ones who don’t own of those countless new Kijangs or, as likely, BMWs streaming past (this was Kemang after all), and you shut up and stumble on.

Yep, Jakarta…the air aside, if I’m honest, I love it more every time I visit, and it’s never long enough. It has much better food and substantially better shopping, on more levels, than Singapore now (at much better prices…and unlike the island nation the smiles are not defined by a rule has soul, immense soul) and more chaos (and a city needs chaos) and is more tolerant than KL. With Bangkok, it’s the city that defines Urban South East Asia.

This time we spent a morning exploring the twenty four stories (over two buildings) of the wholesale fabric and clothing markets, where Indonesia’s manufacturers’ and it’s mom and pop outlets source their fabrics, readymade clothing, buttons, accessories and everything else you can imagine…downstairs where fabrics are only sold in multiples of thousands of meters, and upstairs to the ultra-modern foodhall where traders can enjoy any cuisine from any corner of the world. And it’s in places like that where the sheer scale of this city really hits you. It’s immense….an urban juggernaut with a population five times that of the country I come from (and that excludes its endless sprawling dormitory and manufacturing suburbs across East Java), and yet for most of we westerners, like the country that it exists as the capital of, it’s almost, beyond the terror alerts we read about over our eggs (oh, and Bali…but it never ceases to amaze me how many compatriots don’t know it’s in RI) an absolute unknown. Whilst writing this I tried to find a reasonable link for Kemang, but found nothing much, which when one considers that in Western terms it is of the size and sophistication of many of Australia’s trendier inner suburbs, is astounding. And even Jakarta as a whole, exists only in the sketchiest terms on the net. And that’s simply because, because of it’s sheer size and self-momentum, and because so few visit it from outside Indonesia, this city looks inwards towards Indonesia, a country which is increasingly comfortable in it’s own self and such a bemusing enigma to outsiders.

After two and a half years here, and quite some visits to Jakarta (and countless more to other parts of Java) I find the things that used to astound and confuse, and yes frighten me, now seem so very normal, and warming. I love the groups of young kids on their bikes grinning widely and yelling hello mister at me, and the groups of workers gathered around the bakso carts in hungry anticipation. The heartland of Indonesia is incredible.

It’s a very easy country to fall in love with, and despite knowing that it has to change if things are to get any better for either the masses or the country’s future, you do find yourself hoping that it doesn’t change too much, which of course is incredibly OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         selfish, and spoken as a bulé who doesn’t have to live the way so many here do.

And of course I sound like a gawking tourist, which of course I am, but what was once a mindboggling, even terrifying, place (I described Jakarta after my first visit, to friends, as the “wild west”) feels surprisingly normal to me now. Perhaps it still is the wild west, and the back streets of Glodok still have that aura, but it doesn’t phase me anymore.

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