Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Big Durian

New York is known throughout the world as the Big Apple. I'm not sure whether it's for its sweetness, juiciness, or tendency to turn brown on the slightest contact with air. Whatever the reason I feel that Jakarta deserves its own nickname too. It is just as big and is quite the metropolis in southeast Asia. I have therefore decided to call it the Big Durian in homage to the local pungent delicacy fruit that locals love and foreigners loathe with a passion: the first impression is the smell (or perhaps in the case of Jakarta the haze of pollution on the horizon); at first touch it's a hard and spiky, seemingly impenetrable and not worth the bother to investigate further; once you've finally opened it up you discover that most of it is comprised of inedible, useless ballast with only a small percentage of fleshy goodness; and when you finally get to taste it then it's a 50/50, Marmite-like epiphany of either love or hate. Jakarta is a lot of work and you may not even like it at the end of it.

Is it a spiky, love-it-or-hate-it tropical fruit? or is it Indonesia's much-maligned capital?

I was certainly well-prepared for the city's traffic, whose notoriety has spread far and wide and is the stuff of campfire horror stories amongst seasoned travellers. Permanent gridlock is the default state of affairs, but the reality is not as bad as at first glance. Over the past few years a system of dedicated, high-speed busways have been set up that allow you to get about reasonably efficiently without the need for a jet-pack. Despite being a success story the busways also demonstrate one of Indonesia's recurring failings: the inability to maintain facilities. There are gates at each of the busway stations for swiping electronic cards, but they have long ago ceased to function and passengers need to buy tatty paper tickets to be immediately torn up as they enter. Similarly gorgeous colonial-era buildings, often in prime locations in the city centre are abandoned and left to rot away.

Now that I knew it was possible to get around town easily I made the most of it to explore. There were of course the standard touristy sights that had to be visited, most notably the national museum (particularly strong on Indonesia's diversity of ethnic groups) and nearby national monument (with an unintentionally funny, propagando-nationalistic "history" section in the basement). Though, to be honest, there is a reason Jakarta isn't high on the list of must-see places. The attraction of Jakarta, however, doesn't lie in its things, but in its people. Jakarta runs the entire gamut of he human condition, from grinding poverty and slums, to some of the ritziest nieghbourhoods in the world. There is plenty of money flying around in Jakarta, as is obvious by the second-largest Luis Vuitton store that brazenly proclaims its presence on Thamrin, Jakarta's premier avenue, home to more marble-clad malls than you can shake a Hermes bag at. Luxury cars cruise the valet parking lots and pampered princesses totter on high heels with maids carrying shopping bags in tow. Indonesia, after a bumpy ride from autocracy to free-market capitalism is now rising rapidly and spawning a growing class of people who want to (conspicuously) spend their new-found wealth.

Gridlock amongst Jakarta's malls and high-rises.

Although I didn't get to mix with the stratospheric crowd (and probably wouldn't have enjoyed it if I did) but I did meet many that were what would be described as middle class. Their views and preoccupations are much the same as their counterparts in the West. A typical conversation might veer from the latest promotional fares from the local budget airline (to Bangkok perhaps) to the English Premiership and on to the merits of the latest superhero blockbuster, their language liberally peppered with English words and phrases. I close my eyes and am back at home. One thing that I am finding interesting though is challenging peoples' perceptions of life in the West. It is true that we are richer in absolute terms, but in fact there are many things that the middle class in middle income countries such as Indonesia take for granted that would be unthinkable back home. Most have live-in domestic help (or at least a maid to come in and clean several times a week); eat out more often than not; and would not baulk at taking a taxi across town. For me and my peers at home none of these are within our means and sometimes it is surprising for locals to hear that their quality of life might be materially superior to a Westerner's who, on the face of it, is far richer. I suppose it's the flipside of the Westerner cliche thinking that all people in developing countries live in huts, wear grass skirts and have never heard of electricity. Which just reinforces my belief that travel is an essential tool in breaking down stereotypes and prejudices, something that is more and more important in today's interconnected world.

There are nightclubs in Indonesia's biggest cities, but most people prefer to party with their friends in the confines of a karaoke room. These place are truly hi-tech with tablet PCs used to select songs from a vast digital database (songs in English, Indonesian, Korean, Japanese and Chinese reflecting the various musical influences), room service with an extensive menu and (most importantly) air conditioning.

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