I was all agog about the upcoming trip to Jakarta. This was my first trip in memory where I had nobody to worry about left back home – our son was quite grown up and my dog daughter, Molly, had recently passed on. While she was with us, I hardly ever left her alone or even trusted her to anyone else’s care. Bali was already paradise in my mind. Thus, the association Bali –Indonesia- Jakarta assured me that I’d enjoy Jakarta.
Our taxi ride to the KL airport was with my partner’s favourite cabbie-who sure enough entertained us with songs (some were Hindi song tunes with Malay words) and jokes. MAS remains my pet airways (as if I have much experience of others!) and the two hour flight was bliss just drinking in the scenery –Indonesia from the air (islands, volcanoes,…) and the cloudscapes I so love now, almost a heartbeat away.
Right at the airport the feel confirmed what my partner would tell me on our drive to the hotel: you’ll be reminded of Delhi.
As our luggage and papers were being processed, I saw a couple of airport men, in some sort of uniform, obviously hassling a woman. There was a kind of mean pleasure on their faces. This was in front of all of us and that made no difference. Later I was to see more of this aspect in uniform, in the form of policemen, lurking in crowded shopping areas-much like Delhi indeed. It actually made me feel very much at home, though nervous! India has changed a lot, as I found out when I got home after five years – the police here are now very helpful and charming.
The hotel reception created a little more tension as the fair petite miss with the perpetually pursed lips could not find our booking and all she could offer us was a little higher than what was expected. My partner’s young colleague from China opted out and we all went off in search of cheaper lodgings.
We chose the Atlet Century Park Hotel, in Central Jakarta. Once up in the room, we found the fridge locked! And I think this was after we found that we had been given a room with separate beds: my partner had misinterpreted “twin beds” to mean a double bed! The swarthy bell boy was not the most servile of beings and sort of huffed about when we were going to make up our minds.
As it was Sunday and the day lay almost entirely still ahead of us, we sauntered down to the nearest Mall, Plaza Senayan. We wandered around and, finally (English doesn’t get you around much in Jakarta), found a place to buy sim cards. While my partner handled that, I looked around for booze-beer we could see in the supermarket facing us and there was a wine shop to our left. I finally approached it – it was run by two cute young ladies who were a bit gigglingly aghast when I asked them where one might procure a bottle of whiskey or Vodka. One of them furtively pulled a quarter bottle from somewhere below and sidled it at me. I toddled back to my partner and told him the gist of it and, with his ok, hobbled back hastily lest that one poor bottle disappear too. Thus, as I soon made out, beer is sold but no hard liquor – that is only to be had at bars and pubs and the like (beer lounges). That stuff was basically moonshine at a ridiculous price! So we sundowned our stay in Jakarta on Bintang beer which is nice and light. It was also here that I bought a marvellous thing: a magnifying mirror!
The urgency to get the Sim cards was mainly because we discovered that my partner’s suit had not traveled with us. A little deduction and I recalled that I had left it draped on our son’s motorcycle as we bundled our luggage into the taxi back in KL. So the son, who had not yet risen, was awoken and informed of this and made to take it into safe custody. The trip to the Mall, now, had greater purpose – the lack of the suit had to be remedied by the purchase of a tie.
Now what to eat? We approached a nice little place near the supermarket in the Mall and thought we had made ourselves understood: gado gado and some rice was what we assumed we would find once home at the hotel room. Having quaffed some cold beer, we opened the thermocol box and found gado gado –no rice.
Pigging out at hotel free breakfasts has become a habit with me. The smoking breakfast area had a nice view of the city. Breakfast was “Western”- I did not try the fried rice or Chinese porridge. Munching away whilst skimming through newspapers was quite a treat as the newspapers in Jakarta are as exciting as they used to be in India and as slim. Perching the Jakarta Globe over a sofa arm at some spicy page, I tackled wholemeal toasts with butter and marmalade or honey or jam, nibbled at melons, pineapples and papayas, and washed it all down with orange, guava or apple juice. I also adventurously browsed a selection of strong cheeses, and finished it all off with some hot coffee with real milk and a cigarette.
Lest any frown on such obviously unhealthy ways, I hasten to add that I visited the gym half an hour later on most days. This was an exercise in itself as it was situated at one end of the hotel from the outside.
Having forgotten to pack my swimming costume (as also my cell phone charger) I never got to enjoy a swim in the pool, reputed online to be a culture medium of sorts but did try out the less than half of the gym equipment which functioned. An added incentive was the Indian TV channel (Really Indian from India! Ads and all!) perched high on one gym wall except for the day the grumpy middle aged man from Korea switched to a Korean news channel.
On day 2, after some regulation exertion, I waddled off to Plaza Senayan for more in depth investigation but, alas, soon the thousands of the Indonesian currency took their toll on my courage and I scampered back.
Just outside the back of the hotel, workers gather come evening as do women who peddle some street food and so I had some Tahu: tofu slices batter coated and fried with slivers of cabbage, carrots, etc. inside and served with one green chili. Tahu (Indonesian term for tofu) is one of the few vegetarian choices in these regions. But, as such, Sayur (vegetarian) is more available in Jakarta than in KL. Tahu was quite bland – except for the green chili. Now, what would I not have given for one paneer pakora?!
At first the men, lounging around on the pavement after a hard day’s work (like Amitabh Bachchan in a Seventies Hindi film), jeered at my faltering attempts to figure out what the eatables were but, in the days to come, they and the women greeted my passage with warm friendliness.
That evening our friend took us to another Mall around the corner and we dined at the food court – each eating of his/her choice.
But before that we went to a beer lounge where the beer took ages to arrive (just 3 bintangs). This dimly lit place had the makings of a disco but people huddled around, some in cosy twos and, mostly, as groups of young people, tasting a new found freedom to smoke and drink. I was ravenous but the attempt to ask for the bill prompted the young waitress to ask anxiously: more beel?
My choice for dinner was jackfruit in curry, some veggies and two kinds of chili pastes: green and red.
Before the Bakso
Back in KL, later, I spent a lot of time trying to return my spirit to the here and now of orderly KL but my mind refused to let go of the question “what did we have for dinner on our first night at Jakarta?” A bit of culinary math later, it came back to me: dinner was Chinese (Jakarta style, which our young friend from Beijing confirmed as being closer to home tastes than he found in KL – it was more Singapore, he added).
We had a chicken dish, a beef with black pepper and fish – this last caused some stir, although it was the others which were stir fry.
Our young companion just had to know how much fish was in the fish dish – thank god it was not how now, pepper cow. The waitress, once the poor thing had navigated around her lack of English, his Chinese accent and her assumption that he wanted to know the cost of the dish, stated that it was 750 gms. We were much reassured when only 550 grams of the fish finally arrived, de-boned, in three bowls, with its glaring head following in isolated splendour on a separate serving dish. That in which it had met its end –its delectable shroud of herbs and other things- was proudly placed as centerpiece. We shall not detract from this awe inspiring experience by doubting the amount in grams. The food was tasty and the bill was regal.
One evening, on my way back from Plaza Senayan, I saw that one of the street food vendors had something steaming in a large container. By now, the little group of regulars, workers (male) and vendors (mostly female) had adopted me and rushed in to explain
As usual, baffled by their currency, I merely opened my wallet and let them take the cost. And so I walked into the sunset, relishing this exotic dish: boiled potato, boiled bitter gourd, steamed cabbage leaves with other shredded vegetables inside, and the dim sum like dumpling with a topping of peanut sauce.
The evening that we went to the other Mall nearby for dinner with Madhu’s colleague, it began to rain. Gentle at first.
I saw huddles of happy children under huge umbrellas. On our way back, when the rain was more in earnest, I saw an old man with an umbrella escorted across the road by a smiling young girl with open hair. Behind them was another such pair. By the time we had to head home the rain was no longer negligible and we gratefully accepted the silent offer of a rather tired man. It was romantic for us to cuddle close as we shared one umbrella. He used the other and, at the hotel, my partner paid him -much like my dad-you never ask how much but you give and it is always enough (an aunt had told me this about dad).
I think I got confused about what I did on my second day in Jakarta but now I recall that the kind Mr. Muhidin, at the hotel bell desk, suggested Pasar Raya instead of Tanah Abang. He did say that this Mall was costlier but he and some others at the hotel were not quite comfortable with letting me go to the famous Tanah Abang alone.
Pasar Raya had exotic, mostly Western inspired, evening dresses, for the most part, on the first floor but the last floor was a batik haven with intoxicating Gamelan music flowing over the hypnotized shopper. But it was on another floor that I at last located two shirts to my taste and which fitted too. No wonder! They were “Made in India”! I bought one and got the address of the original outlet in the hope of finding more in Little India.
My coffee (with real milk) at Starbucks (part of me shrinking to use this den of iniquity) was good -it was the only place I could have a smoke, in any case, and, as luck would have it, I spotted a couple of Indians and approached them for more information. Mrs. Singh (30 something) was warm and welcoming and suggested Ganesha and another place for authentic Indian food and Komalas (“not chic”, said she) for dosas.
Tanah Abang was not like Janpath, she explained and we parted after I gave her my old visiting card. Her male companion, a grouchy taciturn Indian from India, did not display much enthusiasm for my gate crashing.
As I fold up this entry, I am being drawn into what seems to be a wonderful and much needed venture to ensure NRIs everywhere get Indian products delivered to their doorsteps. Perhaps by next year I can carry a sachet of Indian pickles instead of the little bottle I filled for the journey and which leaked all over.
The next day I finally ventured out in search of Tanah Abang.
I was quite fearful and I didn’t find much to my fancy but then I didn’t wander around all that much.
To recover I found a nice cosy cafe and sat me down to a coffee and toast.
My Best Memory Of Jakarta
I enquired at the hotel about the tours they offer and paid for one. Early the next morning I boarded a small coach to find that I was the only person on the tour but my tour guide won my heart.
She took me all around Jakarta and told me all the history of the places too.
Best of all was when she took me to her favourite place in Chinatown.
We visited the museum and many other places and I do wish I could get in touch with here again and that I could visit Indonesia again too.
I loved being called Ibu and I loved the films I brought back but have lost now alas!