Jakarta Bound is a travelogue about life in one of the largest and most densely populated cities in South East Asia.
I got to the Tribeca garden courtyard of the Central Park mall and found a café bar called The Hog’s Breath. An interesting name for a venue in a country that has one of the biggest Muslim populations in the world, I thought. They had wifi and a 3-for-2 offer with San Miguel on draft so I took a seat. San Miguel was the best of the beers I’d tried in Jakarta so far. The local Bintang left a nasty bin-tang in my mouth and the Heineken was no better. Someone had told me that the Indonesian breweries use glycerine to preserve their beers in. I don’t know how that process works, but if that’s what was giving the nasty after taste in their beer, it wasn’t working well.
I sat at a table with my half-pint glass of San Miguel and a pack of rapid burning Marlboro Lights and tried to access the wifi. However, despite my phone displaying a full fan of wifi reception, there was absolutely no connection. The English-speaking waitress had no solution. I assumed that being a local she had grown accustomed to what I was only just starting to realise; the wifi in Jakarta was mainly useless. So I decided to simply sit and watch the world of Mallville go by and consider my thoughts of Jakarta having got through my first week.
Sat looking out at mall life passing by in the Tribeca gardens of Central Park, I was underwhelmed. If this mall culture was representative of the atmosphere of the whole city, then the place just wasn’t happening. There was no buzz. No punch. It felt muted, restrained – it didn’t have that freestyle, hedonistic energy of big cities like London, New York, Bangkok or even little old Manchester.
Sitting having a beer in the Tribeca garden of the Central Park mall on a Saturday afternoon was like sitting in a live action version of a developer’s drawing. The landscape gardening, pristine pathways and lawns with not so much as a cigarette butt or bottle top in sight are lovely. The ponds are teaming with huge, healthy Koi with signs attesting to the fact that they are actually fed on gourmet food by way of a non-authoritative order not to feed them your leftovers. The vibrant, green, carefully preened lawns have only ever felt the footfall of gardeners and are cutely signed with a request to the public from ‘Mr and Mrs Grass’ not to stand on them. People wandered and pondered on the choice of wonderfully styled semi-al fresco eateries that they would dine at as the pleasant sounds of lounge music piped out of the innocuous white pillars dotted around the pathways. People drifted in and out of the shops, striking the very poses of the figures in those developer drawings, like life imitating an imagined artistic impression. Happy families, contented couples, formal people having informal weekend lunches and uncorrupted teenagers innocently rebelling via the medium of premature nicotine abuse; it was like a contemporary Southeast Asian slant on 1950’s USA – all very lovely and all very safe, perverse only in its artificiality and deliberate denial of the abject poverty that lay begging and desperately hustling all the hours of the day literally just around the corner.
Lovely is a bit of a lame adjective to describe one of the biggest cities in the world with a population of around 10 million people. It’s kind of bland and anodyne – appropriate in the way that a politically correct office joke in a broker’s boiler room would be. I knew my early judgments were unfair and I imagined that there was a great deal more going on with the people of Mallville at home and at work; and of course there’s more to life than enjoying the hedonistic recklessness of unrestricted freedom. Perhaps it was just me and my perverted perspective. Perhaps being the corrupted product of a heathen, secular society that had long been allowed the freedom of equal rights and the luxury of safe rebellion had tainted my viewpoint of this idyllic scene. Or perhaps I was being unduly influenced at that moment in time by the Muslim couple sat in front of me; he was sat in shorts and a casual shirt whilst she was dressed from head to toe in a black robe with nothing but a slit in her veil for her eyes to see through – they had barely uttered a word to each other for almost an hour. Whether it was my perverted western perspective or my feelings of detachment and isolation from the place that was subverting my subjectivity with bitter cynicism, I don’t know, but there was something odd about the scene in Tribeca gardens. I couldn’t believe that this was what Jakarta was like all over.
It seemed that many of the people in the Central Park mall were struggling with natural social interaction. The atmosphere and setting seemed so contrived. The numerous, brightly coloured and smartly designed cafes and restaurants served up fast food, sweet drinks and confections and they had plenty of customers. But there was a strange lack of social atmosphere for a place that was so busy. People spent more time looking at their mobile phones or tablets than speaking with the people they were with. They had come out with their friends, ordered their sugary drinks or their coffee or their cake in one of the stylish cafés, but then they were spending most of the time scanning the surrounding scene as if looking for something more interesting to do in between social media updates. It all looked cool and modern, but it was also a little bit sad and a little bit odd. Sure, mobile phones and social media have detached a lot of people from the art of personal, social interaction in the UK also; I’ve been guilty of mobile phone distraction myself to a certain degree. However, looking around at the people in Central Park, there was an easily noticeable majority who were more interested in their smartphones than their present company.
In Britain, and Europe in general, alcohol and a particular irreverence tend to oil the conversational wheel. Even if we often over indulge, that disintegration of inhibitions at least helps to kick-start some kind of spontaneous action that isn’t totally restrained by the imperatives of an artificial social protocol. Sugary drinks, coffees and confections just don’t have that same kick. However, I knew I was suffering a little culture shock and I was certain that there was another side to Jakarta’s character. The side I had read about in the expat guides like jakarta100bars.com that rave on about the nightlife and social scene in this megacity. If you’re a developing country that wants to progress in the world of western capitalism, you have to keep your expats entertained. That takes more than pretty landscape gardening, commercial branding and cupcakes. There must be an underbelly somewhere here that liked a tickle.
As I finished the last of my 3-for-2 happy hour drinks I noticed that I had received some new email on my phone. A sliver of wifi must have forced its way through the smog and given me just enough connection time to download new mail. One of the messages was from a woman called Claire, an expat who had been living in Jakarta for a number of years. I’d never met her but Eugene, a good friend of mine from back home, had told me to look her up when I got to Jakarta. He knew her from his time working in Kuwait and said she was “good people”.
Claire had emailed me a few weeks before I’d arrived to introduce herself. I’d told her when I would be arriving, but I hadn’t heard anything from her since. In her message she apologised for not getting in touch with me sooner and left a number for me to get in contact. I was due to meet Jeff from Belgium in half an hour, but I was so desperate for some English contact that I called her straight away.
The sound of a friendly English voice was good to hear, although with the shitty reception and the noise of the Saturday afternoon human traffic in Mallville it was difficult to hear anything. However, Claire seemed easy going and was keen for us to meet. We made plans to meet up later that evening for food and drinks. It was like being invited to an oasis of social contact after the Friday night before. I knew Claire was married and I had no other interest in our meeting other than to spend some informal time with another Brit, but I felt the excitement of someone going on a first date. Saturday night was going to be Saturday night, not another depressing episode of isolation like the night before. At least I would be doing something on the only free Saturday I would have in Jakarta until the DoS re-structured our days off (I had been assigned Monday and Tuesday). Plus, Suki had arranged for Eric and I to join her on a visit to the National Monument (MONAS) followed by a barbecue at her place on Sunday, so this was now starting to feel like a proper weekend and I was starting to feel okay again. If the Belgian’s apartment turned out to be the right kind of place for me to spend the rest of my stay in Jakarta, then all would be good.