Stuck inside of Semanggi with the Soekarno-Hatta blues again

Yes­ter­day I blew my nose and a huge black bit of gunk came out.

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 nought) 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 there, includ­ing a 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

The foot­path on the way, what there was of it, was bro­ken and blocked here and there, includ­ing a sec­tor with rolled barbed wire, and there 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 one 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, I love more every time I vis­it – and it’s nev­er long enough. It has bet­ter food and bet­ter shop­ping, on more lev­els, than Sin­ga­pore now (at much bet­ter prices) and more chaos – and is more tol­er­ant than KL. With Bangkok, it’s the city that defines in a pos­i­tive way, urban South East Asia for me.

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

It’s in places like that where the sheer scale of this city real­ly hits you. It’s immense – a mega-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). Yet for most of we west­ern­ers, like the coun­try that it is the cap­i­tal of, it’s almost – beyond the ter­ror alerts we read about over our eggs – an absolute unknown, Bali aside. Whilst writ­ing this I tried to find a rea­son­able link for the inner city sub­urb of Kemang, but found noth­ing much, which when one con­sid­ers that in West­ern terms it is 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. This city looks inwards towards Indone­sia, a coun­try which is increas­ing­ly com­fort­able in it’s own skin but is 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 won­der­ful and wel­com­ing.

It’s a very easy coun­try to fall in love with, and – despite an under­stand­ing that it has to change if things are to improve for the mass­es –  you do find your­self self­ish­ly hop­ing that it doesn’t change too much.

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 scary feel­ing, but it doesn’t phase me any­more.

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