Lost and found in Jakarta

Jakarta, Indonesia. After ten minutes of waiting for the light to switch from red to green, I realize what everyone else already knows. This traffic light is a decoration, not a trailblazer. Because the locals walk into the street with no hesitation, firmly holding up their hand as a signal to the approaching vehicles that they need to slow down, all while I watch. Never before have I seen cars decelerate from 80 kph to stand still in such short distances, and this is the custom here… Once again I’m prompted that western mindsets you’ll have to check in along with your luggage at the airport and pick up on your way home if you want to get ahead in the outside world.

I’m standing in one of the many turmoiled streets of old town Jakarta. Walking around this historical area where greenery grows throughs cracks in the old edifices and broken windows form hollow-like eyes into the old houses is like walking through an outdoor museum. The torn off balcony doors and the palpable silence as you bypass some of these old landmarks are unnoticeably eerie, yet strikingly beautiful. The white-washed houses, the adobe rooftops; all remnants of the Dutch colonial era a few centuries back. A mesmerizing experience in a place like Jakarta, because there’s no point in trying to deny that this city is by far not the most exciting place on earth. However, in saying that, beauty and enchantment can be found in the most unexpected of places. If you just look up.

I learn this as I’m desperately trying to discern left from right on my phone when suddenly I feel a poke on my shoulder. When I look up, I see a tiny man standing in front of me, and with a friendly but almost toothless smile he says ”Jon”! I shake his hand, and we introduce ourselves. Jon claims to be 27 years old but doesn’t look a day older than 45, and wonders if I would like him to show me around? He explains how he’s witnessed me almost get run over in my attempts to cross the road, and eventhough I’m inclined to say no at first, I let myself persuade into getting on the back of his motorbike. Live a little; I think to myself.

It’s the same kind of chaos in traffic here as anywhere in developing Asia, although people here are rather polite behind the wheel. The deafening sound of car horns isn’t at all too bad here, and if you look closely at the moving vehicles, they’re not that dent. Regardless, having experienced the Southeast Asians traffic I would never have said yes to going by motorbike if I hadn’t realized that going by car, is not the way to get around this city. The constant traffic jam prohibits speeds above 50 kph, and it get’s tiresome a lot quicker. Motorcycles, on the other hand, can efficiently zigzag in between the slow moving vehicles, and save a lot of time. When in Rome, do as the Romans.

As we go, Jon tells me he’s an autodidact, having managed to learn not only English but also Italian and as he says it himself ”a little Japanese” without ever having been to school. He does speak decent English, but I soon realize that his translatable knowledge about the many attractions we pass by don’t go beyond me answering either yes or no. Occasional requests for elaboration are met with silence. But that’s alright; the information his stories comprise is fix enough for my curious mind as we speed through Jakarta. Factual stories about the buildings we pass by and the histories they hold, along with personal anecdotes related to them. He explains that regardless of his prominent language skills he will never get a real job without having been to school, and that’s how the system goes in Indonesia. Oh, bureaucracy.

Sitting on the bak of Jon’s motorbike it hits me that Jakarta is just a Muslim version of Bangkok. Indonesia is a Muslim country, and most of the people you see on the streets are wearing quite strait-laced attires, revealing next to nothing. No knees, no shoulders. But despite this Puritan way of life people are jovial and courteous, and that’s where the similarity can be found. You feel welcomed here, even though very few can communicate beyond hand gestures and facial expressions. Important to take note on.

We dash about the most obvious attractions. The National Monument Monas, a Pentagon-like tower built to commemorate Indonesia’s independence. The rustic antique market in Menteng, Jakarta’s most well-heeled area, where old junk is sold for five times their value. The statue of a young Barack Obama, in front of the school he attended as a young boy from 1969-1971. All of whom places I wouldn’t have cared to visit under my own steam, but who become pleasant experiences in a seasoned guide’s company.

As time is precious we slow down rather than stop in most places, but when we reach one of the highlights of the day I prompt Jon to pull over. The Istiqal Mosque, the largest one in Southeast Asia. An impressive construction I’m dying to get inside, but unfortunately, it is closed today. The gigantic dome and the high-raised minaret is sadly all you can see through the leafy enclosure. But luckily, Jakarta’s greatest Catholic church is located a stone’s throw away, and it’s open today. I’m strangely drawn to religious houses, despite not being religious myself. It’s something about the atmosphere in these rooms I relate so strongly to. The unvoiced respect, the smell of burning candles, the absence of words and presence of silence. I can sit in a place like this for hours, and not because of faith but because of quietude. Jon is a bit more restless than I am, but it’s good for him to look up as well, so we sit for a while.

When Jon drops me in front of my hotel, I’ve learned two things. Firstly, that being forced to stand still for a moment isn’t always a bad thing, and in this stressful world where most of us sometimes tend to have our eyes on the price we also forget to see what takes place around us, and we really shouldn’t. I thank Jon for that, and I make a mental note to remind myself of this now and then. Secondly, that using spf50 in your face doesn’t protect the rest of your body as I’ve taken on a prominent farmer’s tan, with lobster red arms and legs to an alabaster white body and face. Sigh. Well, it’s good to know that there’s always more to learn, even if it sometimes happen the hard way.

PS. Jon’s name is, in reality, something different.

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Postcards from Melbourne

Almost one year ago I started writing postcards. My best friend back home and I recently had a discussion about this, wherein she vividly described how she imagined me sitting down in a quaint café while writing her card, rapt by atmosphere and spur of the moment. At first, I smiled at the romantic thought, but then I explained to her that nine out of ten times I’m literally in the airport when I realize that I have forgotten to buy the sodding postcard. So I end up having to buy the tackiest one there is to find at the last-minute gift shop, on which I only have time to scribble down a sentence or two moments before boarding the aircraft. She laughed, not at all surprised.

But today, I am making an effort. Sitting down in one of Melbournes many cafés, while writing to her. And I’m telling her about everything I can think of. About the plethora of coffee shops, on every corner and down every street. About the array of cozy holes in the wall, hip greasy spoons and rustic eateries, all with a lot of character. How it’s not just the bare lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling or the funky art hanging on the walls that make me want to linger whenever I sit down with my coffee. How it’s the courteous and chatty staff. And how I admire Australians in general, for their aptitude of chitchatting. And yes, I know the word chitchatting is enough to make a lot of people’s hair stand on end, so I explain that it’s not the kind of soulless bantering she nor myself might be used to. This is proper, genuine and well-articulated conversation making, from people in jovial moods, present in the moment who have great eye-contact. Full on flirting, but without the suggestive undertone. So I tell her to come here for beautiful first impressions, and genuine western kindness. And also, a little bit of stardust on top of her coffee.

But with regards to coffee, the matter of fact is actually, that I deep-heartedly detest Australian coffee. A long black is the closest you’ll come to a cup of brewed coffee, but to me, this is the broth of Satan. A double espresso over hot water. Strong, but bitter, lacking the smoothness only found in European coffee. However, I should grovel and admit that I am by no means a connoisseur of coffee. I couldn’t confidently describe the vast difference between a latte and a cappuccino if my life depended on it, and possibly due to I consider everything apart from black coffee as dessert.

She knows all of this about me already. So instead, I go on about the many gardens of Melbourne. About Fitzroy Gardens, and about the majestic English Elms lining the pathways through the park. Right now completely bare, but in the summer leafy and radiating of chlorophyll. Strikingly beautiful in both seasons. I tell her about the birdsong you hear, the students reading on the lawn, the traversing joggers and about the interplay of sunlight sifting through the tree crowns. And about the newlyweds having their pictures taken in front of the Royal Exhibition Center in Carlton Gardens. This strikingly beautiful Unesco World Heritage site influenced by the Florence Cathedral and the Rundbogenstil, a so-called Romanesque Revival style in architecture from late 19h century. But that’s supplementary information for anyone not as interested in architectural elements as me.

A walk or two in the park is all very well, but downtown Melbourne has an urban vibe I also want to share with her, so I take her to Flinders Street. I describe the constant cluster of people roaming up and down this midpoint of the city. I share how you most accurately discern an Australian from an expat, especially in the cold season. Australians put on their full winter attire, despite temperatures equivalent to fall or spring in Europe. Expats wear flipflops and shorts. They know real cold and are not easily intimidated by weather. I carry on about the Oriental restaurants and the redundancy of art galleries, where you can easily get lost for hours. In this city, any institution comprising art becomes a sacred place, and you don’t have to be knowledgeable about art to pick up on it.

The textbox isn’t big enough for me to give her every story I want to share, so I can’t tell her everything. So I finish off by describing to her what it’s like looking out into the distance from the 88th story of the sky-high Eureka Tower. How this capital-sized city all of a sudden seemed so tiny and graspable. How the Botanical Garden where I went for my morning run, the downtown CBD and the National Gallery of Victoria all come together in one single postcard. Just like the one I’ve now writing.

I’ll see you soon, with love