We took the ferry from Singapore to the Indonesian island of Batam, which took only an hour and a half. Batam is more a junction than a destination. We cabbed it to the airport, and flew to Java — to Indonesia’s biggest city, Jakarta.
At Jakarta, we grabbed another cab. During the ride to the hotel, we noticed some stark differences between Jakarta and Singapore. Chaotic and gritty, Jakarta’s the polar opposite to spotless, organized Singapore. There’s a huge amount of poverty in Jakarta, and we drove by a lot of seemingly improvised shantytowns. It’s hard to discern a city plan, if there is one.
The streets were bustling with life — lots of people and little homegrown businesses, like roadside fried chicken shacks.
Our hotel was a tallish post-modern number in the middle of town. The hotel was fairly tasteful, but we were puzzled by this decorative accent:
Out one hotel window, we could see this ramshackle building next door. We experienced a lot of cognitive dissonance in Jakarta. "Home Sweet Home" is scrawled in cursive on the little roof at the right of the photo.
That night, we ate at a Nyonya restaurant. Nyonya means Straits Chinese — the Chinese who settled in Indonesia and Malaysia many years ago. They developed their own delicious hybrid cuisine (and hybrid culture). We ate gado gado, which is Indonesian salad with pineapple, apple, lettuce, tofu, tomato and cucumber, dressed in a peanut sauce. Indonesians like sweet food, and so do we.
The next day, we set out on foot to find the "Colonial core" of Jakarta, comprised of some of the few remaining Dutch colonial buildings in town. Although our hotel was in the "downtown" area, many of the businesses nearby were quite decrepit. We walked several blocks, and found a sim card place for our phones. Continuing down the boulevard, the day turned hot and hazy, and acrid traffic fumes hurt our noses. Walkways were rare and in bad repair, and we were some of the only pedestrians on the street.
This place didn’t have a lot to recommend it.
Okay, sorry, that was just me giving in to the Bevis-like tendency to photograph signs that don’t translate well into English.
Dehydrated and sweat soaked, we decided to stop for a drink at the Borobudur Hotel, a high-end neoclassical place that was probably built in the 70’s. For the first time on our trip, aside from airports, our bags were searched by security guards. We were later told this is now common practice, after the bombings.
We had a drink at the Churchill Cafe, which is a cigar bar, with the odd decorating choice of a Cigar Aficionado magazine covers of General Tommy Franks adorning the walls. We had a nice mango pudding.
Thirst sated, we redoubled our effort to find the Colonial core. Walking through a big square park that the colonists had laid out, we saw large, imposing sculpture above the treetops. Not my fave.
Finally, on the other side of the park, we discerned a few colonial-looking buildings. There’s a museum there too, but we couldn’t find it. By that time, we were too hot and sweaty look for more, and were ready to return to the hotel. We caught a cab this time.
That evening, we ate at a place called Paprika’s, across from the hotel. It’s a chic restaurant with a dark red modernist interior, a great menu, and a really nice tiramisu martini. And a wine list that included $300 bottles. There was a live Indonesian sort of jazz band. Jason pointed out that the decor, cuisine and prices were such that we could be in New York. It was the second most expensive meal of our trip, and further illustrated the stratification of wealth in the city.
The next day, we went to the colonial style National Museum. We were lucky enough to happen upon some women training to be museum tour guides. Accompanied by ten guides, we had a good introduction to Indonesian art.
The women were a diverse group, from countries including Egypt, France, Colombia, Canada and Indonesia. Many of their husbands work in the oil industry.
Indonesia’s art and culture are incredibly diverse. It’s a huge country of 250 million people, comprised of about five large islands, and many small islands. In fact, it’s about as wide as the US. In addition to the main Muslim population, Indonesia has a large Christian population, and pockets of animists, Hindus and Buddhists. Indonesians speak a variety of languages, in addition to the national language of Bahasa Indonesia.
The museum’s exhibits reflected some of this diversity, although exhibits were poorly marked. It was interesting to compare the elaborately carved roofs of traditional houses with those of Thailand and Vietnam. Some were decorated with animal heads. There’s a real tradition of skilled carving on the islands. And the animists have some of the most unusual types of carvings, like elaborate wooden housings for ancestor’s skulls.
The guides told us about how some animists actually won’t travel without their ancestor’s skulls — even on planes. Understandably, they have difficulty at security check points.
At one point, a local woman wanted to take our picture. Jason and I posed with her and her children, while her husband took a photo. Apparently they don’t see a lot of westerners.
We wanted to pick a few things up, and took a cab to a mall. We were searched again before entering. Starbucks was the first thing we saw. The mall was sparkling and clean, with shops like Longchamp, Gucci, and California Pizza Kitchen. Again, a different world from the from some of the neighborhoods we’d seen.
Later, at Kinokuniya Japanese bookstore, people in traditional Muslim dress contrasted with the Paris Hilton Diary.
Blueberries were eight dollars at the supermarket.
That evening, we had dinner at a makeshift seafood stand on the street near the hotel. The stand consisted of a few knock-down tables; plastic stools; and sheets of muslin to shield the diners, hand-painted with various fish species. A lit kerosene container with a well-loved wok were balanced atop on the sidewalk, and alley cats pawed at a bucket of fish. Flying ants kept falling from the tarp above, on the table, in my hair and on my lap. I was kind of dubious about the experience. But the whole roasted fish turned out to be very good.
Later that evening, my college friend Florian, and his new wife Arlene picked us up at the hotel.
Florian was the first familiar face we’ve seen on the trip, and it was fun to catch up. They took us to a great restaurant/bar with a melding of traditional Chinese and Indian decor. Part of the resto was made of actual pieces of old carved wooden houses. We had a few drinks and sampled Indonesian snacks, including some panadus leaf pancakes in coconut milk soup, and Dutch-style ginger cake.
After drinks, Florian and Arlene drove us around the city. They pointed out a few old Dutch art deco buildings. Apparently most have been torn down, as people in Jakarta are, understandably, not nostalgic about the former colonists. And they pointed out the sites of the Australian embassy and Marriott bombings. Florian was working a block away from the embassy when it was bombed, and Arlene was about a block away from the Marriott bombing. We can kind of relate, given our experience of the Trade Center bombings. They also drove us through a variety of residential areas, so we got a kind of overview of the city.