Friday, January 28, 2005

The Romance of Jakarta

The Romance of Jakarta

It's the rainy season here in Jakarta and the threat of flood is always present. I know of friends who go to work with an over-night change of clothes in the event that they get trapped in the city by the flood and the resulting traffic jam.

I've resumed my life in Jakarta (at least for this short duration) as if I've never left this place--same hotel, same routine and same kind of food. Sometimes when I think back of the time I'd spent here, I wish I had done more. But then again, what is considered more? Visiting more tourist locations? Sampling more of the local food? Checking out more nightspots in town?

My priority has always been to understand the country's people, history and culture. I might not have taken the trouble to check out Dunia Fantasi at Ancol or taken a cruise to Pulau Seribu but I'm grateful for the opportunity to have embarked on some crazy pursuits like visiting the grave of Marhaen at kampung Cipagalo (some Indonesians don't even know who exactly Marhaen is), tracing the bungalow houses designed by Sukarno in Bandung and identifying the exact location of Fromberg Park, mentioned by Pramoedya Ananta Toer in Tales from Djakarta.

There are lots of other things that I could have done too: I wished I had travelled around the archipelago a little bit more, visit places like Manado, Bengkulu and Pontianak. But during the time that I was here, I was too enamoured with the many things that I could discover in Jakarta itself (even visiting a place like Kampung Kebun Jahe Kober was a great adventure to me) that I didn't bother to venture further.

Whenever things started to become dull, a bomb would explode somewhere, and the whole city would be abuzz again with rumours and knee-jerk reactions. But people here have no time to fuss too much about such occassional setbacks; mouths have to be fed and life has to go on, like how their ancestors here have done for centuries.

What amazes me is how little Jakartans complain about the intolerable living conditions in their city--the congestion, the pollution, the poor or non-existent water supply, the blatant abuse of the law. Well yes, you do hear some noises being made every now and then--the press, the NGOs--but not the kind of anger and venom that the typical Malaysian would hurl on their authorities had such a similar situation arise in KL.

But the daily gridlock traffic, the cramped living conditions, the smell from the garbage-choked canals, the squallor, the poverty and the ever-pervading air of Javanese nonchalance, they are all part of the romance that is Jakarta. I could spend the rest of my life here and would still die a happy man.

Someday, Jakarta will be like Singapore, and perhaps everyone then will be yuppie-happy, living in an urban utopia fringed by well-manicured gardens, in an air-conditioned catacomb of glaring billboards and techno-kitsch; and then there probably will not be anymore pengamins spoiling your lunch at the warung with bad renditions of Dewa's Separuh Nafas or ojeks zipping dangerously between between rickety bajajs and fume-spewing mikrolets or ojek payung kids scampering around offering umbrella service on a rainy day.

That day will come inevitably, and when it does, perhaps I'll have to find my romance elsewhere.

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