The Big Durian

Trip Start Aug 11, 2011
Trip End Sep 08, 2012

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Where I stayed
Bangka Bed and Breakfast Jakarta
Read my review - 5/5 stars

Flag of Indonesia  , Java,
Friday, May 18, 2012

The shortest bus journey of the trip turns out to be one of the worst. We are leaving Bukittinggi, bound for Jakarta - the capital of Indonesia. We have to make a serious decision here - travel to Jakarta by bus or fly? The bus journey is, by all accounts, one of the worst. Not only is it a continuation of the rough highway we travelled on to Bukittinggi, it also takes anything up to 72 hours and there is nowhere of interest to stop off along the way to break up the journey - with only a month left on our visa and Sheila near 'bus-breaking point', I agree that we should fly. The nearest airport is in the city of Padang, two hours away, so with cheap flight tickets secured by our mate at the Canyon Cafe, we say good bye Bukittinggi and board the minibus that will take us to the airport.

The driver is a skinny young Indo dude with a death wish. First, we are conned into squeezing into the back seats of the van with another passenger, a local businessman, then, in claustrophobic conditions and stifling heat we have to sit scrunched up with bags and guitar on our laps as our cowboy driver hurtles around Bukittinggi picking up other passengers until the minivan is rammed with people, luggage and a couple of boxes. Then he zooms off in a decidedly dangerous manner, overtaking everything, until we are stuck in a stationary traffic jam for an hour. The air-conditioning doesn't reach the back of the van and my legs have gone numb and I am helplessly pissed-off.

At the smart new Padang airport (Padang was mostly destroyed in an earthquake a few years ago) we sit and wait for our flight while every TV screen in the waiting room shows rolling news of the recent crash of the Russian Sikhoi airliner in the mountains of Java, just what I need. A good flight is one where you take off, experience little or no turbulence then land safely - ours is a good flight.

It's about 7.30 when we land and 8.30 when we emerge into the arrival hall. We have been clever here - we have booked a place to stay in advance, and a driver is waiting for us with our names on a card, like the celebrities that we would love to be. Jakarta is a notorious city in the travellers' world. It has an eye-watering population of over 20 million and is sometimes referred to as "The Big Durian", after The Big Apple, New York. A durian is regarded as the stinkiest fruit in the world so this nickname is not flattering. Everything we hear and read about this city makes us think that we won't stay long.

We booked our accommodation through after a random trawl through the list of affordable places. Jakarta is generally expensive and as there is no real 'buget, backpacker' area, nor any centralised city centre, we pick the best looking choice on offer - the Bangka Bed and Breakfast, in a part of town called Kemang, described as an upmarket suburb. The driver who meets us, Hans tells us that he used to be the personal driver for Alexander Downer, an Australian politician who was posted here earlier in his career. We sit comfortably in his air-conditioned car as we zoom toward the city from the airport.... for about 15 minutes, then we hit the traffic jam. It is a nightmarish creep through a snail-paced parade of cars, buses and trucks. The city seems to go on forever around us and in the dark it has little resemblance to any other Asian metropolis. There appears to be no motorbikes, no tuk tuks, no street stalls, no markets, just traffic and neon lit buildings. Almost two hours it takes to inch along the multi-laned freeway that cuts through the city until at last we take an exit and crawl along smaller suburban roads, seeing the occasional food barrow and many more motorbikes.

Finally, Hans turns down a street which turns into a lane which ends in a cul-de-sac where we stop at the Bangka B & B. We feel like we have arrived at secret refuge after a frightening journey through some kind of futuristic dystopia where vehicles rule the world. What is even more uplifting is to enter this haven and find it to be like home; a lovely, white two story house with trees and a garden, with balconies, a secure fence and a big welcoming doorway. Inside, the decor is tasteful and smart by anyone's definition and we are led to the second floor via a grand stairwell with a chandelier and clearstory window.

The B & B part is on the second floor, a large room with comfortable chairs and tall bookshelves heaving with academic tomes. There is a big common room off that with a dining table and two modern bathrooms tucked behind more bookshelves. Windows everywhere, free tea and coffee on offer anytime and a guy named Rico on duty to see to our every need. Our room, one of four, is huge, with a giant, comfy bed and soothing air-con. It's all looking good so far. Despite our ravenous hunger, we are just too knackered and overwhelmed by the enormous city outside to venture back up to the main street to find food. We have coffee and chat with Rico for a while before sinking into that big dreamy bed.

Breakfast is laid out for us on the big table in the morning. Simple fare, just fruit juice, fresh fruit, toast and coffee, but that's all we need these days to sustain us until lunch or later. Looking out over the verandah we see that we are in a leafy suburb of both smart houses and older, poorer homes that are nevertheless kept neat and tidy. If we do nothing in Jakarta, at least we can stay here and rest in comfort.

Rico is replaced in the morning by a sweet young girl named Rini, who looks after us with equal care. As well as us, there are two other guests staying, a pair of young Japanese men, Ryo and Takeshi, here to find work. These guys can't speak English so well but are nevertheless friendly and smiling. Our first mission in Jakarta is to organise our exit from the place. We plan to catch one of Indonesia's only passenger trains - an eight hour journey to the city of Yogyakarta on the south east coast of Java. To book tickets we must catch a taxi across town to the Gambir Railway station. Jakarta has a pretty dire public transport system. There is a thing called the Busway, a network of bus lanes with raised platforms for boarding, but it is too confusing and foreign for us to contemplate. There are also small tuk tuk like motorised vehicles called bijaks, they resemble bubble cars, but these are only viable for short distances around small suburban roads. There are Ojeks too - motorbike taxis, but we don't fancy riding through crazy traffic and extreme heat on these. So a taxi it is. The trip to Gambir takes about 45 minutes in traffic and costs about 40,000R ($4) so not too bad.

At Gambir we are distressed to learn that all the trains are fully booked until Friday, and today is Tuesday... we are stuck here for two days longer than we planned. With tickets in hand we venture out of the concourse and climb through a tiny hole in a fence to enter the vast Merdeka Square, a huge park and plaza that is regarded as the centre of Jakarta. In the centre of this space stands a tall monument - The Monas - the obelisk (132m) is nicknamed "Sukharno's Last Erection", after the infamous president who began it's construction in 1961, before he was deposed in a coup by General Suharto in about 1967. We wander around the massive base of the erection in stifling heat before retreating by cab to the tranquility of the Bangka.

Jakarta is not pedestrian friendly. To walk anywhere around the vast city seems impossible due to distances and multi-laned throughways. Even in leafy Kemang suburb it is difficult and dodgy to stroll about. Footpaths are either non-existent or pitted with deep holes above murky drains. Food stalls line the roads but unlike places like Vietnam there are no little plastic stools to sit on and eat. We walk about our new neighbourhood looking for bookshops and places to eat, other than KFC or Starbucks. We spot a couple of interesting possibilities.

That night we walk up to the main road again and enter a double purpose Pakistani Restaurant and Persian Carpet shop. We are the only customers but the food is fantastic. After that we move on a few doors to of all places, Murphy's Irish Pub. We don't expect much but inside it is just like a proper Irish-themed pub like you'd find anywhere in the world, with dark wood panelling and Irish ephemera decorating the walls, plus, there is live music advertised for the evening.

Again, I don't hold out much hope for the music, expecting a typical South East Asian boy band. But... the musicians arrives and set up - an acoustic guitarist, a girl with an electric bass, a boy singer and a beautiful young woman armed with an electric violin. The first thing they play is an incredible medley of Irish jigs and reels. Then the singer begins and he has a great voice with good English diction and range. Another girl joins the band from the audience, a Javanese beauty with a fantastic voice. Sheila and I are blown away by what we hear. They are as good as any band of it's type we've heard anywhere in the world. They play some soft pop a la the Coors, then dive into some Creedence, then in the middle of a ballad the bassist unleashes some rapid fire funk while that chick on the fiddle would give Vanessa Mae a run for her money. The bass player, a big, jolly girl, then sings a deep southern blues in a perfect gravelly voice, while punching out her bass notes without missing a beat. The guitar guy can play too - any style, finger-picking, lead runs, jazz riffs. When we finally leave the bar we are pretty well speechless. The band go by the name of 'The Wagons', though I've struggled to find much about them on the internet.

On Wednesday morning the owner of Bangka B&B comes around to introduce himself to his guests. Rama is an urbane, world travelled Javanese man who speaks impeccable English and has an intimate knowledge of his city - it's history, it's sights, and its psyche. After chatting for a while he invites us on a tour of Jakarta, a free service he offers to his guests. The tour is planned for the next day which also happens to be Ascension Day - Indonesia celebrates the holidays of all its major religions - and he promises us that the traffic will be easier on this day off.

We spend the rest of the afternoon searching for a bookshop in Kemang, first stopping for a western lunch in Eastern Promise, an authentic English pub that serves Indian and British tucker and is habituated by the classic ex-pat - middle-aged men dressed in button down shirts and slacks, all looking the same and all talking business expansion and development; the food is good though. We finally locate a small bookstall in a massive, brand new apartment and shopping mall complex that is still very much under-construction. I buy a book and we battle our way home to Bangka, looking forward to our tour the next day.

Rama picks us and the Japanese boys up at 10am and we pile into an air-conditioned people carrier with a quiet and competent driver - Rama doesn't like to drive in the city himself. As we cruise through town, he points out various buildings and monuments including a huge kitsch statue known locally as The Pizza Delivery Man, and the Welcome to Jakarta Statue that faces the wrong way since the entrance to the city was changed with the new airport. We drive to Chinatown, a sprawling area of crumbling Dutch-era building that could do with a serious make-over. But as we get closer to the harbour we see potential in the older colonial buildings that is yet to be realised.

Rama says he will take us to the dock to see a schooner. I have visions of a restored old ship with polished wood and tall masts, a tourist attraction. However, we are reduced to a state of awe when we see the dock stretching for what looks like miles with hundreds of large wooden ships lined up along it. The prows of these 'schooners' jut over the wall of the dock in dramatic fashion as manually operated cranes load cargo nets full of produce into the holds. The place is a hubub of activity, with trucks, bicycles, men shouting, dust billowing and shimmering heat. We are met by a skinny bloke who offers to take our group on board one of the schooners - just pick a boat and he will arrange it. We find one and the guide, Sam, asks the captain if we can come aboard.

Sheila's worst boat fears are suddenly realised. To board the vessel we must walk across a narrow gangplank that stretches several metres over the muckiest, filthiest stretch of grey scummy water you've ever seen. One by one we teeter across the wobbly, bouncing plank, with Sam lending a hand to the less well balanced (Sheila and Yoshi, one of the Japanese). On board we watch the crew loading sacks of fertilizer into the hold, not the most romantic of cargoes but definitely authentic. In my mind, we are plunged back a hundred years to a time when tall ships and clippers plied the seas. In Indonesia, this time still exists. This particular boat is bound for Borneo, Sulewesi and other far flung destinations in the Archipeligo.

The crew are a friendly, cheerful bunch as I share cigarettes amongst them. The wheelhouse is a spartan affair, just a steering wheel, a compass and levers for forward, reverse, fast and slow. No GPS or radar. It's a wonderful experience for me, a bit of a boat lover, though I know Sheila is dreading the walk back across the plank.

Back on dry land, Rama then takes us to an old Dutch East Indies company (VOC) warehouse where there is an intricately carved teak Javanese house. The building is locked but by positioning my camera under the door and using the flash we get a glimpse of the interior - models of ships, antique furniture and an array of huge oriental vases.

Then it's off to the old town square where we have lunch in the original Cafe Batavia. It's expensive and not the best Nasi Goreng we've had, but the interior of the old building is evocative of Graeme Greene, Agatha Cristie and a host of other icons of the early 20th century. In the big square outside people are enjoying their day off, cycling, juggling, eating ice creams and generally doing what people do the world over on such days. As some of the few westerners here we are overwhelmed by the ubiquitous school groups who want to interview us... celebrities again.

Rama squeezes alot into his tour - we cruise back through the city, past the largest Mosque in SE Asia and the Jakatra Christian Cathedral across the road. He is proud of the religious tolerance that exists in his country, and for us, several myths are dispelled, although recently we read in the news that it is illegal to be an athiest in Indonesia. We stop at a local pasar (market) though Sheila and I have seen so many of these that we are underwhelmed by this little one.

At last we return to the Bangka for a well earned rest in our air-conditioned room, in preparation for our train journey tomorrow. We have been well and truly seduced by Jakarta, a city that held no promise for us and now, thanks to Rama, Rico and Rini, the three 'R's I call them, we have learned to appreciate this megalopolis. It may be the Big Durian, but with the Bangka B&B as our base, it feels more like a bowl of cherries.
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My Review Of The Place I Stayed

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Rama Slamet on

Thanks again for the great review, Mike and Sheila Crome! Now I have a website copy to make a hard copy from. Regards, Rama Slamet in Jakarta, Indonesia.

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