21 February 2011


Well, not really, I am blogging after all.

On nearly every single objective criteria by which people judge cities, Jakarta fails - miserably. It's filthy, crowded, hot, the infrastructure is a mess, getting around town is nightmarish, it's ugly by most standards, it has a whole lot of rats and too many open sewers and trash heaps and even fires seeming to randomly shoot up from places you don't want to think about under the sidewalks and some of the most grinding poverty on the planet.

I love it. When I get into one of the under air-conditioned taxis at the airport and start sweating on my way into town, my blood pressure drops at least 30 percent. My shoulders sag into an at-ease position. I breathe a long deep, exhaust-filled sigh of relief.

If I believed in past lives, which I don't, I'd be likely to say that in some previous existence I must have lived an extremely swell life in this place.

Most of you are probably glad you didn't come with me to dinner tonight.

I walked around the corner from my hotel, along a massively crowded street filled with honking and belching cars and high whiny sputtery motorbikes. I walked sort of balanced on the curb and sometimes in the gutter because the sidewalk is made up of a progression of cracked, cracking and entirely missing concrete blocks above an open sewer. Rats, some of them enormous, paid me no mind as they ran back and forth in front of me.

I passed small warung - outdoor food stalls with a seat or two and shops - where people sat in the smoke from cooking fires and the auto exhaust and the heat and the humidity, eating their dinners or having a cigarette. Everyone said good evening as I passed, and I returned the greeting.

I got to a collection of three warung, all of them offering nasi Padang - my favorite style of Indonesian cooking. It's from West Sumatra and is the spiciest of all Indonesian food. The benches and picnic tables in front of them were filled with taxi drivers. One of them scooted over to make room for me.

To order, all you have to do is look in the window of the cooking cart where dishes are piled high with food that's been cooked who knows when and point at what you want. I knew what I wanted so I ordered without looking - food that I know they will have at every nasi Padang joint in the world. I got a heaping plate of rice covered with beef rendang, grilled chicken, kangkung (a spinach like vegetable that kicks the ass of spinach) and sambal hijau - a freshly cooked mash up of fresh green chilies and dried anchovies. It came with a mug of lukewarm tea from Central Java. Most of the taxi drivers were eating with their hands and I started to as well. But then someone came out with a fork and spoon and since two other people were using them I wasn't too embarrassed to follow suit.

It was delicious. I did my best to have a conversation with the taxi drivers and they were very accommodating - politely correcting my Indonesian when I made mistakes and encouraging me to talk about ever more complicated topics.

When it came time to leave I was so full I could barely stand up. I paid my 15,000 rupiah ($1.50) - nope, not a typo - said my goodbyes and headed back along the street.

It took a while to get back to the hotel. All kinds of people wanted to stop and chat, learn a little something about what I was doing there, tell me a little something about themselves, practice their English or help me practice my Indonesian. There were no streetlights. It was dark and could have been scary. I was surrounded by thousands of people, nearly every single one of who was a great deal poorer than I am, yet there was a friendliness and camaraderie and genuine curiosity about each other that is unlike I have encountered anywhere else.

I did live here for about two years - 1995-97 - and the city is a great deal more crowded than it was then. I'm not sure what it would be like to live here anymore, but objectivity has nothing to do with my feelings for the place.

I think a lot of you might have your own version of Jakarta. My sister Nancy feels the same way about Mexico City and some places in Africa. I met someone once who thought that Bartlesville, Oklahoma is heaven on Earth. Are there any horrible places that you love? Have any idea why?

1 comment:

sydlexic said...

I love Las Vegas for almost exactly the opposite reasons you love Jakarta. It's the cleanest, most sanitized, most alienated (and alienating) place I've ever been. Even the laughing, smiling hordes of drunks seem somehow lost, with a faraway look in their eyes that seems to say, "Well, I'm here. Now what?"

Why would I love such a forsaken place? Perhaps because it points up the artificiality of all civilization, particularly that of advanced capitalized societies, in such a stark way. Vegas is a lab experiment where the rats don't scramble across your feet -- you are the rat.