I was recently in Jakarta for about a week and i thoroughly enjoyed being there. Thinking of the reasons i liked it so much, i am putting down a few:
1. My sister lives there with her husband and two adorable kids aged almost 9 and almost 5. This was our second visit there and we enjoyed it even more than the first. I think my sister had been there a year longer and she had much more ownership and love for the place. As a result we all liked it even more!
2. My niece, Aanya aged almost 9 is a writer. I seriously mean that. She writes all the time. If she is not actually writing a story she is constructing it in her head. I think i loved Jakarta so much because i had the time to sit with her and read her amazing stories. She has pages and pages of writing and i was privileged enough to read them. By the way, she writes a blurb about herself at the end of each of her stories. She says a few sentences about herself, of course, but then she dutifully inserts each time, 'I have an aunt who is a REAL writer. She has written a very nice book.' Its as if she wants to reassure herself and the world that this is for Real, since a REAL writer lurks somewhere in the family. Its like insanity - if its in the family, the likelihood of it being in you is a little more certain. I am sure Aanya will drop this qualification once she becomes a REAL writer as she imagines one to be, but for now, i'm pretty pleased with the honourable mention i get in each of her well-written pieces.
3. I enjoyed being with my nephew, Raghav, whose preoccupation presently, it appears, is to have new clothes. His mother despairs no end over this girlish obsession. A visit to the mall, if it does not yield a new piece of clothing is utterly worthless. One day, when Mallika had acquired a large number of things for herself, he quietly came to me, tugged at my shirt and looking at me with large questioning eyes asked, 'How come you get Malli so much stuff?' I really had no answer to that simple question. It just made me a little contrite maybe for over-indulging my first-born. I was determined to be more watchful of what she bought in the future. But now my attention was turned to him. With every shop we visited and walked out of i saw his face become more crest-fallen. Finally i could take it no more. We walked into Zara and guiding him slowly to the kids section, i saw his face bloom with delight when he found himself in this paradise of clothes that were more his size. He ran from shelf to shelf and grabbed all the t-shirts in range. Holding each one up against his chest he showed them to me and asked if they were nice. I said i liked most of them and he was delighted. This is when his mother chanced upon us. She was a lot more selective and stern. She told him he could have no more than one t-shirt, if he insisted. When i chided my sister for being so hard on him, she re-assured me he had a large closet full of such acquisitions from frequent forays into the mall. 'And does he not wear them later?' i enquired. 'No, he does,' she assured me an exasperated look on her face. 'Sometimes he changes thrice and four times a day, in order to wear all his clothes.' I could understand her despair, though i hid a smile. She was clearly concerned about this girlish love for clothing that her son was displaying. She would be much happier if he showed a healthier interest in soccer or worms or space-ships for instance. Well, finally we left the store with two t-shirts, a pair of shorts and a natty pair of shoes. Raghav wore those clothes the entire time we were there. They had to be recovered from the wash, unwashed or partially washed as the case may be. 'Do you see now?' my sister rolled her eyes. 'This is what i mean by he is obsessed.' Well i know what she meant for when he was playing with the basketball later, i noticed he would bounce the ball once, then look down at the laces on his new shoes, straighten them if they had become slightly askew, then bounce it again and quickly check on his laces once more and so on!
4. I loved Jakarta because of my sister's loving attention and that of the helpers in her house who were like extended family, constantly pampering us. And because of Sumi, a dream masseuse, who is a short sms away. She would appear at any time of day or night as requested. She asks but one question after a warm greeting and i'm sure that is the full extent of her English. 'One hour or one and half hour?' she smiles at the beginning of each session. Grudgingly i would respond, 'Only one hour.' Our other pleasure activities did not allow me the luxury of longer indulgence in this, the most pleasurable activity of all. For Jakarta is the kind of place you can prepare a list of activities that all fall in the pleasurable, more pleasurable and highly pleasurable categories and having more of only the former can leave you feeling cheated. For if all you had to do was either eat, drink, swim in your private pool, go out to dinner or lunch or both to fancy yet inexpensive restaurants, visit the palatial villas of other friends, play golf, shop in world class malls, or get massaged, wouldn't it be hard to choose? By the end of my visit, i was as heart-broken in leaving Sumi behind as the rest of the family.
5. I loved Jakarta for the stoicism of the people. No doubt the traffic is harrowing, what makes it bearable is the unflustered attitude of the people. The driver, a late middle aged man called Pa Mehedi was ever so patient inspite of the numerous trips he had to make in a day ferrying us around the city. While my sister was constantly exercising her mind to derive the best routes, he was quietly compliant. He probably wondered why she took so much trouble to plan each trip out, directing him at every juncture on which detour to take based on the traffic conditions. For him it was all the same. Whether we stood in traffic for hours or moved ahead freely, it was faced with the same air of acceptance. I wondered if it was indifference since he was unaffected by these circumstances, his job being to merely move us from place to place. However, what i did detect was an air of acceptance rather than anything. I realized he was at peace with what was going on around him for that was the only way for him to be. Were he not to accept the situation, the traffic would certainly get the better of him and he would lose his composure and his health. It was much better for him to accept what he could not change.
6. I saw and loved the old part of Jakarta or Batavia as it was called - the old colonial buildings and past, a slice of which is preserved in Cafe Batavia. It is a must do for anyone on a trip to Jakarta who wants to get the flavours of past glories of the amazing bustling city in the times of the Dutch. It was a favourite watering hole, an upscale eating house, a place where personal stories entwined with the histories of nations and cultures. Located in the old port area it is surrounded by abandoned warehouses. However, it wears a distinct up-scale air rather than the rough-neck feel such localities normally bear. In that sense it is an oasis of sorts. The walls are crammed with memorabilia like photos and prints of old Hollywood films, actors and actresses and flora and fauna of this physically exotic part of the world. The bar is surrounded with bold animal print stools and the rest of the decor is equally dramatic. It is the kind of place that demands you spend the whole day people watching at, specially since it takes the better part of two hours to get there. Families are known to open up a tab with brunch and bed down until cocktails and early dinner bring an end to an idyllic relaxed Sunday. For children, the open square outside probably affords some entertainment and space to run and play, though it was packed tight with people the day we went there. Certainly not a place to be in a hurry in. Cafe Batavia has time if you have it.
7. Our time at Cafe Batavia was cut short by, of all things, a visit to the copy market or fake goods market. It is an amazing haven of activity - seven floors in all, of which we were able to explore a tiny corner in about two hours. The vendors are a portrait of diplomacy and cheeriness. They are kind and firm at the same time while negotiating a deal. Overall a very pleasant experience was Mangga Dua - the place you get Hermes and Todds and Prada and Gucci all in one shop and you can probably buy one of each and not have to file a bankruptcy claim later.
8. Speaking of treasures, Jakarta has small hidden shops tucked away in unlikely corners - like the Edelweiss Bakery I visited quite by chance. An unscheduled stop, it is obviously run and owned by a Swiss national, as evidenced by the mats on the tables of the eatery that were fashioned like the Swiss flag. The most enticing aroma of baking greeted us when my sister dropped in to buy her supply of cured meats - more or less a weekly ritual. While she placed her order from a number of large and sparkling clean freezers, i browsed the cafe. There were several corners for a long term traveller to become comfortable in - all equipped with roomy cushioned seats and book racks stocked with mostly travel books that looked like donations from generous passers-through after they were done with them. How else do you explain books on Peru, Moscow and Antarctic all assembled on the shelf of a cafe in Jakarta. Other than welcoming inveterate travelers, the cafe offers fresh, flavourful hams, sausages, bacon, salami and cheeses from Switzerland, while they bake a daily selection of fresh breads. That day it was croissants - flaky and soft that melted upon contact with one's mouth. Armed with 6 of these and the meats and cheese we left feeling immensely satisfied. We were back for another dozen in half an hour! We had devoured them for lunch with the cheese, some salad and iced Diet cokes and a freshly baked batch was requested as immediate replacement. Such islands of excellence abound in the city where nationals of other countries have adopted Jakarta as their home but manage to transport people to their parts of the world through their unique cuisine, all served with the wonderful Indonesian hospitality and grace. Definitely a Lonely Planet moment.
9. What struck me about Jakarta was its many layered persona. The grace and beauty of an old culture is contrasted by the modernism and eagerness of an emerging country. It's strongly Muslim identity is burnished with relative tolerance that comes from an amalgamation of so many cultures, mainly Indian Hindu and colonial Christian. The steadiness of it's people is crossed with the trembling uncertainty of the over 17,000 islands that form it's land mass, which erupt in earthquakes or volcanoes at an average rate of 3 episodes per day! From glaring poverty to the most opulent living, Indonesia and Jakarta has it all. However the wealth of the country lies in it's craftsmanship and creativity - something the Indonesians are famed for, yet humble about. It is even more a land of shamans and mystics, animist beliefs and esoteric practices than India is. In spiritual beliefs, in fact, the two cultures are very close to each other; this another amazing and warming discovery! Indonesia is one more country where the ancient and the modern have coalesced to form the collective consciousness of the country. All the ancient cultures of Asia are such amalgams and Indonesia is definitely one big, fuzzy, complex and explosive example!
The next time I go to Jakarta and arrive in the simple single storey airport and stand in the visa on arrival queue, i may be tempted to mention as the period of stay, '30 days' - the maximum permissible! For who knows what else i will discover in the steamy city.