“Building, building,” Daryono smiled. He glanced back at me from the drivers seat as we edged slowly through the traffic. “in Jakarta there is always building.”
Daryono and I had got along the moment we met. At Sukarno-Hatto airport, numbed by nearly sixteen hours of continuous air travel, with only a short pause in the electronics hyper-market that is Singapore airport, you step from the plane into a long steamy passageway the colour of deep terracotta. The walls incorporate ornate Javanese carvings and through panelled windows one glimpses intricately designed tropical gardens sunk between the departure lounges and arrivals.
At passport control and immigration, a procedure carried out by universally disinterested officials, one is greeted by a welcoming board explaining in curt frankness that, ‘Drug possession in Indonesia is a crime punishable by firing squad’. After one final and utterly lacklustre security clearance scan, which served no general purpose due to no one actually looking at the monitor as my bag rolled through, you are ushered along a noisy concourse crowded with jockeying hotel and taxi-agents. After the surprisingly brief and painless ordeal of crossing an international border you step out into the surprising humidity of tropical Asia. Automatically reaching for my crumpled packet of cigarettes before remembering that gleeful security guy at Heathrow who had taken your only lighter the day before.
At first all I noticed of Indonesia was a sea of highly animated taxi drivers. Much like a baying mob they descended towards me at an alarming speed. Of the ‘Hey mister, hey mister, hey mister! Taxi, taxi, taxi!’ chorus line, Daryono, an elderly man in a black taqiyah and loose fitting clothes seemed the only person amongst them who didn’t possess the hallmark features of imminent extortion or possible theft.
As he threw my gear into the boot and locked it shut he asked. “Where you from, Mister?”
“I’m from London. England.”
“England, yes?” he paused and I could see him thinking. “Alex Ferguson!” he exclaimed and patted me on the shoulder.
I have always found it funny that someone on the other side of the globe probably knew more about the great English game than I did. But then it’s hardly surprising. I couldn’t help but respect that like most ordinary workingmen the world over, excepting of course the United States, Daryono found Premiership football infinitely more interesting than international politics. Another reason for liking him.
We zoomed out of the airport complex at an alarming pace, Daryono fiddling with his radio and talking all the way. Progress of such fluidity and speed soon ended abruptly. We stopped at the main road. Ahead, all the way to Jakarta spread the most comprehensive traffic jam I have ever seen.
The highway to Jakarta deserves some description because in many ways the traffic jams getting in and out of Indonesia’ capital is emblematic of everything to do with this country. You look at the highway with a sense of utter bewilderment. Ahead, as far as the eye can see, stretches an endless and certainly the oddest variety of convoluted transportation imaginable.
To begin with, there are many shiny privately-owned coaches and mini-buses; alongside which are filthy public buses, most being so overcrowded a few passengers are required to hang haphazardly from the doors; there are lorries with brightly painted cabs, some of ancient antiquity, edging forward, heavy with produce from the fields, others overloaded with furniture, white goods and air conditioning units, all of which seem to have thriving populations of people squatting determinedly on the top of the merchandise; there are ominous looking four by fours with blacked out windows; a smattering of private cars and yellow and blue Mercedes taxis cabs. Amidst this are rickshaws and carts, usually pushed to the outer lane, they occasionally weave optimistically through the stationery traffic. Harassing everyone in equal measure is an overwhelming crowd of scooters and motorbikes, buzzing and jostling like angry insects. Scooters, by their inordinate abundance, are the preferred mode of transport in Indonesia and in the space of a few minutes that first day I saw them carrying a huge variety of impossible, if not inexplicable loads: one belabouring 50cc smoke belcher carried a family of four, the smallest child sat plumly across the handle bars; another scooter rattled along between the tightly packed cars carrying two wooden crates, one balanced at either end, loaded with dead featherless chickens; another driven by a young man careered madly along, propped precariously on his lap was a large television, his one free hand just about managing to keep the scooter under control.
Despite Daryono’s protestations and some impatient lane swapping to little effect and much car-horn beeping (throughout my time in Indonesia, I quickly discerned a nationalistic past time, the use of the motor horn. Given ample opportunity an Indonesian will beep his horn at anything that moves, be it a duck or an express train): I decided to sit back and let it all go by. All roads in Indonesia, be they the many laned highways or the narrow side streets, are miniature war zones. The object of each and every Indonesian driver is an unparalleled thirst for suicidal road supremacy. To infuriate the overzealousness of Jakarta’s drivers, there are men with whistles who stand amid the stalled confusion of jams waving brightly coloured flags frantically at any vehicle induced to make a turning or change lanes and is stuck in the midst of the stationery traffic. Their job is to secure rights of space for this stranded driver who is by custom required pay them for their noble whistling flag waving endeavours. If no token bribe is exchanged then the flag waving man ducks along the side of the offending vehicle, scratching its side with whatever sharp metallic device he has near to reach before continuing on his way, whistling and waving his flags madly.
The layout of roads, the simple use of traffic signs and signals are all principally ignored by everybody. A narrow pot-holed two-lane road in Jakarta is interpreted by the average resident as a six-lane highway in which any direction can be attained so long as one drives forcefully and beeps their horn to an imaginary samba rhythm. The road into Jakarta, bordered on both sides by old gnarled acacia trees, is in itself a crowded suburb of the city, in fact an industrial hub of its own standing. Beneath the dusty leaves groups of people cluster by open cookers and a paraphernalia of small traders, workshops, food stalls and motorbike mechanics, all plying a trade of sorts. In the fields behind I glimpsed a collection of emaciated goats and the elegant outline of storks and egrets picking their way amongst stubbly grass and rubbish. Beyond was a landscape of low paddy fields and ramshackle wooden houses squatting at errant angles on stilts.
From the air a haze of inclement pollution obscures Jakarta. Perhaps, on closer inspection, it’s best that way. Jakarta is one of the most densely populated cities on earth, with around 23 million inhabitants, most of whom spend a great deal of their time sitting in traffic jams beeping their scooter and car horns. The city itself is a mass of old and new. The greater part is steamy, chocking, untidy and over-crowded. There are vast areas of ramshackle houses and crumbling shacks, all slowly decaying amid piles of trash: contrasting strongly with the business districts and their fabulously elegant tall glass buildings and the occasional decadent colonial splendour of Indonesia’s previous European overlords.
In between, whatever is left tends to be pulled down and immediately replaced by swinging cranes, erratic scaffolding and the ubiquitous hording advertising some plush imaginatively designed haven of luxury and splendour. Behind the appealing hoarding all that can be seen is an empty expanse of rubble, an emaciated dog and a canal filled with sewage. What is lost is a clear sense of continuity. Jakarta by all appearances seems to have risen through some calamitous improvisation. Everything looked as if it was either about to fall down or was due to be pulled-down. It seemed an apparition of destruction and reconstruction. And it was hard to decipher which side was winning.
There are lavish shopping malls for an expanding elite. New mosques, built through the charity of the poor, rival each other across busy main streets already impinged by Western flavours, Starbucks and Pizza Hut seeming the most prominent invaders. The space between is crammed with shiny new hotels and banks and offices. Jakarta’s inhabitants seem to exist squeezed in between this massive expansion, many having no choice but to sleep on cardboard. Every space seemed impossibly crammed, even bare rooftops served as a form of open-air accommodation. The extraordinary ability to fit so many people in such a small confined space is perfected in Asia. Nowhere else can you find people living in such close proximity, poor and squalid as it is to the observer, in an air of apparent harmony. As Robert Byron once remarked ‘here at last is the Orient in all its confusion’.
We rise bumping across a bridge and I glimpse briefly a wide expanse of open ground beneath us where rusted lines of a railway spread into the haze of the distance. Stacked to one side, maybe three stories high in places, was a pile of rubbish and general filth. Remarkably, in the brief moment of catching sight of this I saw to my astonishment that whole communities appeared to be living, not beside it: but actually on it.
We pause at the security station at the front of the hotel. Two grinning men in immaculate blue uniforms and brilliantly polished boots, with mirrors at the end of sticks, stoop and peer around the car as it idles. After some more grinning and a quick thumbs up we’re driving through to the main entrance. Car bombs, for many years a fashionable accessory to hard-line extremists the world over, has in recent years become a potent weapon of choice in Indonesia. In 2003 a Toyota pickup packed with the same ingredient of explosives used in Bali the year before drove up to the front of the Jakarta Marriott Hotel. The ensuing explosion killed a dozen people and injured well over a hundred. The severed head of the suicide bomber, a member of Jemaah Islamiyah, was later found amidst the debris on the fifth floor of the building. The following year a similar episode occurred outside the Australian embassy.
After passing through one final metal detector, the Millennium Hotel welcomed me into its biblically vast lobby, a line of smiling attendant staff beamed from behind the book-in desk, across a space similar in size to the nave in St Paul’s cathedral. The room I was ushered into smelt slightly of mildew and there were two lively cockroaches that clattered along the tiles of the bathroom floor when the lights were switched on. But it felt good to put my bags down and to be able to spread things around a little. A cup of coffee accompanied by a cigarette and it all sunk in on me, as it often does at moments like this: I had been awake roughly speaking for over 24 hours, had crossed to the other side of the globe and was now residing in a hotel in a capital city I had never visited, of a country I had never been to before. It was six in the afternoon and the sky was darkening outside.