The Big Durian
Trip Start Aug 11, 2011
108Trip End Sep 08, 2012
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Where I stayed
Bangka Bed and Breakfast Jakarta
Read my review - 5/5 stars
Read my review - 5/5 stars
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
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 Hostebookers.com after a random trawl through the list of affordable places
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
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
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
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
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
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
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..
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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