26 June 2011

A solo trip to Jakarta

Getting from Portland to Jakarta is no easy feat. Granted, it was only three flights, but they took a total of over 20 flying hours and close to 30 elapsed hours from door to door. On the other hand, my personal effort was limited to sitting and occasionally waving a boarding pass at someone, so I shouldn't complain too much.

Today is likely to be my only day off for a couple of weeks, and I wanted to see at least a little bit of Jakarta. Since I'm here by myself and my Bahasa Indonesian language skills are non-existent, I wasn't prepared to try anything too adventurous, so I simply took a taxi from my hotel to Kota, the historic center of Jakarta - or Batavia, as it was originally known. Several historic structures are scattered around Fatahillah Square, which dates from the early 18th century when the Dutch East India Company took over a small fishing village and built it into a cornerstone of their empire.

Unfortunately, nearly three centuries of tropical weather, earthquakes, and urbanization have taken a toll on the historic buildings, and most of them are in pretty sad shape. Still, the square is a popular gathering place, and the early morning crowd was enjoying mild temperatures and nice cool breezes. The square was filled with local tour groups, families, and the occasional gringo tourist like me. As is the case pretty much anywhere outside of northern Europe, I don't exactly blend in, so I collected my usual ration of gawks and double takes.

Around the perimeter of the square, a lot of entrepreneurial guys rent out bicycles and they all adhere to a stylish, color-coordinated lineup of their products. I enjoyed taking a few pics of them.

I wandered around the square and a few adjacent streets and eventually stopped for a cup of coffee at Cafe Batavia, located on the square and semi-renowned for its bar, which some magazine named as one of the best in the world. In my opinion, that nomination stemmed more from romantic colonial fantasies than from any current allure. The place is a little down at the heels, but does indeed have a cool old fashioned vibe. But world-class? Please. Unsurprisingly on a Sunday morning, the bar was mostly empty, but I nursed a cup of astoundingly strong coffee and listened to an ambiguously-gendered torch singer belt out strongly accented songs from my parents' generation to a crowd that totalled three people: me and two women in Muslim headscarves. It was quirky and slightly awkward and a total hoot - I love weird stuff like that.

Finally, when it was time to head back to the hotel, I stepped out onto a busy boulevard and tried to flag down a taxi - not as easy as it sounds in a city where many of the taxis are unregulated and potentially unsafe. While I was ineffectually trying to find just the right sort of cab, a gaggle of tween-aged schoolgirls passed by on the crowded sidewalk. Their teacher - a tiny woman who might have been nearly five feet tall - approached me and explained that they were an English class and that the girls would like to speak with me. She very politely asked if that was okay - as if I could say no to such a request.

The girls were initially shy - and who wouldn't be, speaking a foreign language to a bizarre-looking grownup man? But the bravest one finally asked "What is your name?" The next asked "Where are you from?", and the third asked "How old are you?" (Ill-concealed shock at the answer). Then the questions came tumbling out, and I was laughing and trying to answer all of them. A crowd of 20 or 30 non-English-speaking onlookers enjoyed the show as well.

Then it was time to take photos, so I posed for several shots with the giggling crowd of tiny girls, grinning widely for what will have to be among the weirdest photos those girls will ever own. Finally, each of them shook my hand and recited "Pleased to meet you" and they were off into the crowded streets of Kota.

Not a minute later, a suitable taxi cruised past. I flagged him down and rode back to the hotel. A successful mini-adventure.

Indonesia's national motto is "Unity In Diversity" and right now I'm listening to the competing sounds of a muezzin's call to prayer ringing out from a nearby mosque and the ratatat of a marching band practicing on a nearby athletic field. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to get more of a glimpse into this fascinating place.


Steve-n-Melissa said...

Wouldn't it be nice if we could sprout olive-toned skin and dark brown hair when we travel? There are so few places on Earth where we blend. I guess the upside is the occasional encounter like this, where your salt-and-paprika hair inspires joy and cross-cultural communication. Have fun, be safe. I adore you.


GibblesNBits said...

I love this piece. Enjoy your time in this weird and lovely place.

Todd French said...

Wicked awesome blog post, brah. Srsly.