Jakarta Bound is a travelogue about life in one of the largest and most densely populated cities in South East Asia.
During the induction week, Eric, Suki and I were temporary best buddies and spent a lot of time together. For much of that time Eric and I moaned about Jakarta and how disappointed we were with the city. Both of us had chosen Jakarta as a place to come and work because it is the capital of Indonesia, which as a country, is a fascinating place of rich and diverse natural beauty. It is the world’s largest archipelago and it promised a multitude of beautiful island paradises within easy reach by boat, plane, train or automobile. However, the truth was turning out to be very different.
Jakarta is a huge megacity with no discernible city plan. Wealth and poverty are thrashed together in the spaces between the gleaming modern skyscrapers, commercial buildings and the grimey tenements where the vast majority of the poor indigenous population live. It’s a disorganised web of congested roads, deficient landscaping, ill-conceived city planning and development, all smothered beneath a cloud of carbon dioxide filled smog. From what I had worked out, it took at least three days to escape and spend any significant time anywhere remotely tropical or with any resemblance of paradise; but neither Eric nor I were likely to be getting three consecutive days off any time soon. As a DoS, it would be unlikely that he would even be able to take more than five days off at any time, which gave him serious reservations about staying.
Suki was naturally proud of her country, pointing out that it had the largest of the South East Asian economies and a rich and cultured history. Although she laughed along with most of our whines and derisive observations about Jakarta, it probably hurt a little to hear two Bules slate her country – even if it was just this particular city. However, she rode the banter well and never showed any offence – on the surface at least. Instead, expressing the warmth of spirit and friendliness that strikes you as inherent in the Indonesian temperament after a short time being around the people, she suggested that we all get together and go and see one of the city’s landmarks that Sunday. After induction we would all be placed on our respective timetables, so we probably wouldn’t get to see each other together again any time soon. It was a good idea to take the opportunity to do a little sightseeing together, even if it was only the one sight that we would be seeing. So she suggested that we go and see the Monumen Nasional – or Monas – a 430ft high obelisk crowned at the top with a flame sculpture covered in pure gold. It’s the easiest day trip in Jakarta as it’s right in the centre of the city.
The Monas tower was erected under the direction of President Sukarno in 1961 and was built to commemorate Indonesia’s struggle for independence. It’s located in Jakarta Pusat (Central Jakarta) in Merdeka Square, which is one of the rare public green spaces in a city of concrete, tarmac and toxins. The couple that Suki was renting a room from were having a barbecue that day and she said that they would be happy for us all to come over after we had been to see the monument. The house was in Kemang and they had a pool – what better way to end a day of sightseeing in the heat of Jakarta. All in all it sounded like a good day out, so we arranged to meet each other at FX Mall in Surdiman at 11am on Sunday.
We all met at the FX mall just after 12 noon as Suki was a little late in arriving. I had managed to get there on time despite the main road through Surdiman being closed off to traffic due as Sunday morning is a designated cyclist’s day. Eric had also got there in good time as he lived in the area, so he and I had gone to eat some Japanese food at a place in the mall before Suki arrived.
I was quite excited at the idea of actually seeing something in Jakarta other than buildings and shops, but I was also keen to try out the Transjakarta busway system. I had travelled by taxi for the entirety of the induction and training, all courtesy of English First. They were pretty comfortable and convenient, but you don’t really see much life in motion in a place when you’re moving around in a private cab. You’re simply in a little bubble moving from place to place, avoiding the place you’re in. So actually getting on a bus was as much a part of this day trip as seeing the monument.
FX Mall is located next to Gelora Bung Karno, which is the national sports stadium. There is a busway stop there and it’s about nine stops and a 20-minute ride to Monas. However, like all journeys by road in Jakarta, this depended on the traffic. That being said, the way the busway works means that traffic isn’t so much of a problem. The buses have their own designated busway lane, which in principle affords a clearway for them to get around the city unimpeded by the terrible traffic jams and congestion. However, as you can imagine, with the traffic being so bad, taxis and other vehicles inevitably jump into these lanes when the traffic is at its worst. The traffic on the day of our trip wasn’t too bad.
At most busway stops you can pay in cash, but for the stop at Gelora Bung Karno you need what they call an e-card, which costs 40,000 IDR and includes some fares. The idea is that you can put travelling credit on the card and swipe it across the sensor at the turnstile without having to stop to buy a ticket. Each fare is 3500 IDR and that takes you from one destination to the next. It’s a system pretty much like the London Tube, but it’s over ground and the map isn’t as well designed. However, unlike the London Underground with it’s different zones, as long as you plan your journey and get off at the right connecting stops, you can potentially get right across Jakarta on one fare. How long and how comfortable that journey is depends on the time of day, the number of sweating passengers on the bus, the age of the bus and the length of the journey. Our bus was pretty new and it wasn’t too packed, although six foot seven Eric still looked like a pretty poor fit. Luckily he got a seat so he didn’t have to arch like a giraffe in a cage for too long.
The parking area at the entrance to Merdeka Square was full of traders selling drinks, dry food snacks and souvenirs. There were also traders selling sunglasses and bags and other random bits and pieces unrelated to the monument itself. As we walked through into the gardens there was one trader who had his display of t-shirts emblazoned with the logos and images of popular and not so popular pop stars and rock bands, spread out on the floor. None of them related in anyway to Monas, Jakarta or even Indonesia.
It was another hot day in Jakarta, but it was particular hot at Merdeka Square. As we walked up to the monument it felt like walking under a grill. Out in the open, the Indonesian heat really flexes its muscles, punching its way through that cloud of smog and hitting hard. Beads of sweat were soon rolling down both Eric’s head and mine, but it was a good thing he brought his cap. I have a short, thick, healthy rug of hair covering my pate, whereas the evidently thinning strands of hair that covered Eric’s skull would not have provided enough protection from the heat and UV rays over the course of the day.
Walking in the punishing heat toward the towering obelisk ahead of us, I saw something that made me really question the sanity of Jakarta for the first time. Seeing Megadeath, Slipknot and Jay Z designs amongst the t-shirt man’s display when we first walked in was pretty random, but seeing two costumed figures with what looked like big foam Oreo cookie heads just did not compute in any rational way in my mind. Aside from the fact that I couldn’t make any reasonable connection between cookies – Oreo or otherwise – and a monument that celebrates the struggles of a nation – it was at least 40 fucking degrees out there! Whatever poor, underpaid souls were underneath those costumes must have been suffering; and God knows how long they were expected to be out there entertaining the kids, which is what I guess their jobs were – cookie-looky-likey-kiddie entertainment characters!? Crazy madness – I just could not understand the rationale of it at all.
We continued the 100 meter or so walk toward the monument, weaving between the numerous traders, litter and detritus on the ground, until we got to the entrance to the monument. This is an underground tunnel that you enter about 50 meters from the fenced area surrounding the monument itself. As you walk down the steps into the marble walled bunker where you buy your entry ticket before making your way through the tunnel leading to the main attraction, there are more kiosks selling refreshments. You’re well advised to have something to hydrate yourself before you enter, as whilst the basement area of the monument is nice and cool, there’s no shade once you get out into the open. There are several more poor locals selling drinks through the fence once you’re within the monument grounds themselves, but there is also a sign warning that you will be fined if you are caught buying from these desperate illegal traders.
The entrance fee depends on whether you just want to go up to ‘The Cup’ platform, visit the Hall of Independence and see the Indonesian National Museum in the base of the monument, or you also want to ride the elevator up to the observation tower at the very top; both tickets cost us 30000 IDR, although we never made it up to the observation tower. There is only one lift that goes up and there was a queue of easily a hundred people waiting under the searing heat of the sun for their turn. We didn’t watch whatever it was that was taking place in the Hall of Independence either. The step seating in the hall was very hard, the air conditioning was barely on, and whatever was going to happen in there – performance, presentation, show – it was likely to have been in Bahasa.
I found that the most interesting thing about Monas was the view and the 51 dioramas documenting the country’s history in the museum section as you walk in. Nonetheless, there is a philosophy behind the design of the monument. The ‘Flame of Independence’ at the peak of the obelisk is a 14.5 tonne bronze sculpture covered in 50 kilograms of gold foil. The obelisk represents lingaa, which resembles the rice pestle (alu). The platform, known as the ‘The Cup’ (cawan), represents yoni, which is symbolic of the rice mortar (lesung). These are the traditional tools of Indonesian culture, but lingga and yoni also symbolise eternal life, with the lingga as a phallic symbol representing masculinity, positivity and daytime, whilst the yoni as the female symbol, representing femininity, negative elements and night.
When you enter the grounds of the monument there is a relief mural on the four interior walls that give a visual representation of the key moments of Indonesia’s history. This history is documented in greater detail through the dioramas in the museum housed in the base of the structure. This dimly lit, marble-lined hall is the only reprieve you can get from the scorching temperatures of a hot day and you will find dozens of people sat randomly in the middle of the floor like students at a festival. It’s also a great way to get a crash course in Indonesian history. The scenes depicted in the 51 dioramas are accompanied by Bahasa and English notes. They show the history going as far back as the first Indian empires of Sriwijaya in Sumatra in the 7th century, through to the legends of Majapahit and the Hindu-Javanese empire and continuing on through the significant events that led up to independence in 1945. You learn about Indonesia’s trading history and the introduction of Islam, the oppressive colonial rule under the Portuguese then Dutch, who through the Dutch East India Company (known as VOC) established a spice monopoly that lasted well into the 18th century, before they expanded into sugar and coffee cultivation during the 19th century. The story continues all the way through to the 20th century charting the uprisings against Dutch rule, the short but cruel occupation by the Japanese and the new order ushered in with the Suharto regime. It’s a fascinating history that tells an all too familiar story of a developing country fighting to emerge from hundreds of years of exploitation by European merchants and settlers in the wake of Columbus’ discovery of the New World in 1492. Eric wasn’t too interested in the history of Indonesia, but was grateful for the cool air in the museum and happy to take a break as I looked through all of the 51 dioramas and accompanying notes.
After we left the museum we made our way to The Cup platform and took some photos of the surrounding Merdeka Park. I would imagine you get a great view if there’s no smog, but there always seems to be smog in Jakarta, so the view wasn’t that great. We did consider taking the lift to the top of the monument, but the length of the queue in the sun killed our incentive for the full Monas experience. Eric was also feeling seriously dehydrated and wanted to get some fluid and shade, so we made our way back out of the monument to head to Suki’s barbecue. The thought of burgers and chicken wings by a cold pool was mightily appealing by now.
When we were leaving Monas Eric found that he was a bit of an attraction. Being so tall in a nation of people who are generally short, he found that he had become a photo opportunity for visitors. I don’t think he was too amused though. He was very much hot and bothered and actually started to feel ill in the taxi on the way to Kemang. Despite the protection from his cap, Long Eric with the delicate constitution was suffering from mild heatstroke. How the hell he lasted for nine years in the scorched realm of The Kingdom and Iraq I really don’t know.