Friday, 24 September 2010

Trying to get under the skin of Jakarta

I was trying to think what to call this post, and I suppose ‘trying to get under the skin’ is about as close as I can get to the reason why two white blokes were following an Indonesian teenager round an itinerary written by a Jakarta pop princess.

If that sentence doesn’t make sense, then you’ve started at the wrong point in this thread… go back two posts and start again for the full picture, I can’t face trying to explain it all in a sentence. Sorry.

So where did we leave off… oh yes, the driver was just leaving the Intercontinental Hotel. Pretty soon we were in a fairly scruffy part of town where we stood out a mile. At last! We were in a place where Europeans stood out! There was no air-conditioning, and no-one opened the door for me.

We were in Pasar Benhill, a busy market that seemed to sell everything that didn’t cost more than £10. I didn’t like to take photos here, as I felt very conspicuous and not 100% safe. Angke bought us ave (a fried pancake with coconut in the middle) from a street stall.

Man with pancake. Potential for
food poisoning not shown
The one thing you’re told in every guidebook to Indonesia is not to eat any food from a stall – European stomachs aren’t able to cope with it – but at this stage I knew it would be rude to refuse, and besides, it was fried… what could possibly go wrong? Should anyone ask you, by the way, the local Sundanese name is kue tetek. Now you know. What did it taste like? A coconut crepe, I suppose. What did you expect?

The market was amazing – a real smorgasbord of smells, sights and sounds, but all painted in dirty, dull, dusty colours. The smells all had a tang of hard work and the sounds weren’t cheerful – they were real working sounds. Children and cats wandered around unconcerned by the noise and local people worked and sat and stared in equal numbers.

Tanah Abang
One (bottled) iced tea later and again we were off. This was like going to where the other half shops – Tanah Abang. This was a classic shopping arcade on 7 levels, each level with a different theme – shoes or bags or ladies’ clothes or whatever.

Our driver drove up about 400 floors to park. Eventually he found a parking space, just before the point at which we needed an oxygen chamber to be able to breathe. This space was only blocking in three other cars, but we casually got out and walked away.

Contemplating purchases
in Tanah Abang. Or escape.
Either is likely.
‘What happens if any of them want to leave before we do?’ I asked casually. ‘Oh, that’s OK,’ said Angke, ‘he’s left the handbrake off so they can push the car out of the way’. Well that’s all right, then. Can you imagine leaving a car with the handbrake off in London? Me neither.

In Tanah Abang, I was most fascinated by the huge range of Batik and the incredible amount of fake designer goods on sale. Batik is a traditional pattern used in Indonesia. Rather like paisley, it’s a style rather than a specific material, colour or form. I really like it, but I know I’d look like a twonk wearing it, so I won’t. The fake brand I really liked was a range of suitcases labelled ‘Samnosite’. Who wouldn’t be fooled by that?

Angke also let us know, in conversation, that the hardest part of her job was that during her long shifts she was required to stand up most of the time, and the hotel insisted that she wear high heels. That was what really got to her. Me too.

Let's do tourist
Next to Monas. This is about the only area of green space in Jakarta, with the national monument – a flame atop a high pillar (sound like another monument somewhere else?). Apparently when it was first designed, President Sukarto wanted the design to be in the form of a linga and a yoni. That's a penis and a vagina. Looks like he got half his own way. I'd love to have seen his blueprint...
I love this statue,
but sadly I've no idea
what it is

We stayed here for a while, me trying to keep out of the sun, watching the kite flying that takes place here every day.

Grass! In Jakarta! It's a miracle!

Time for lunch at Restaurant Dapur Sunda. We drove for ages to get here. Apparently Angke’s mother is Sundanese, and this is the local racial grouping, so we had to try the food. Had to. In case you’re wondering, my colleague had Gourame fish, battered, which tasted just like classic (good) fish and chips such as you might get in a decent seaside town in England, and I had Ayam Goprek Bakar, grilled chicken in a peanut sauce.

Helpful advice in the restaurant
toilet. And to think that for all
these years...
Angke insisted that we try Rujak Serut (fruit with spicy peanut sauce), which was seriously strange, but rather nice. Try putting small slices of fruit into crunchy peanut butter, make it more liquid by adding fruit juice, then add Tabasco. Wow.

Being the drunkard I am, I also asked for a bottle of the local beer, Bintang. The bottle that arrived was possibly the biggest bottle in the world, so I knew that my participation in the afternoon was endangered.

Where next? As we were in the area, the other examiner suggested that we drop in on Angke’s parents. That turned out to be very strange indeed… more next time.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Jakarta in a day

Those of you who read the last blog will know that I was about to set off – with another examiner – with the lovely Angke on a guided day trip round Jakarta. You’ll also remember that I described her physically in glowing terms.

Let me adapt what I said then; firstly the name Angke was actually her version of a shortened version of ‘Angela’, but with a hard ‘g’. I’m not sure how to write that – Anggy? That just looks strange, so I’m going to stick to Angke if you don’t mind. Or even if you do mind.

The second most striking thing was that taking her out of her work clothes – if you see what I mean – turned her into any other 18 year old. Attractive enough, yes, but nonetheless just another 18 year old who had volunteered to take two middle-aged foreigners round the city. Someone the same age as my daughter was trusting someone as potentially dodgy as me. And a friend.

The third most striking thing was that when we met in the hotel lobby at 11am, the other examiner and I asked if we should look for a taxi, or whether the hotel had organised one for us. Oh no, said Angke, we were going to go in her car. Her car? But;
    1. she was 18, working as an intern in a hotel – how would she be able to afford a car?
    2. we were standing in the lobby of a hotel with no car in sight
    3. driving in Jakarta is only for the insane
She soon put us right. It was fine, she said, her driver was going to take us round for the day. Would it be ok if we went round in a Honda City? Her driver? And there was a choice of car? There were now far too many questions and the other examiner and I tried to avoid catching each other’s eyes, but this was promising to be, well, interesting.

Angke's driver. Racing goggles not shown
Her driver turned up outside the hotel and we all piled in. Our itinerary was simple: this other examiner had found an article in an English language newspaper written by some Javanese pop princess about what her perfect day would be if she were to spend it in Jakarta. That would form our plan of campaign. Visit those places.

As we set off, I tried a few simple sentences in Indonesian and asked a couple of questions. Angke was impressed… my Indonesian accent was very good, apparently, and didn’t sound English at all.

I relaxed… here, clearly, was a girl who showed good taste, discretion, and was prepared to lie in order to be polite. Things were looking up.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Putting off the clouds...

Well: I said I’d write about clouds – and I will – but I’ve changed my mind. Since there’s a chance that people are reading this in order to gain some wonderful insight into the life of an examiner in Indonesia, I thought I really ought to satisfy that want.

I suppose to understand the situation here, you have to know something of the Indonesian people. I’ll save most of that for a later blog, when I’ve got more experience of them, but for the time being it’s enough to know that they’re unfailingly polite and respectful. Being an Associated Board examiner here gives you a meretricious aura of wisdom and authority that it’s hard not to enjoy.
My welcome at Murni Music Centre. Note the spelling mistake, which was corrected two days later...

Also, the cynic in me suggests that the people who run these centres make a tidy sum of money out of the ABRSM (which I’m sure they thoroughly deserve), so it’s in their interests to make us feel as important and appreciated as possible.

Another examiner and I flew out from Heathrow on the same flight. When we got to passport control at Jakarta, a representative was waiting for us on the ‘wrong’ side of the desks. Ignoring the queues, he took our passports, ushered us through a diplomatic channel, and told us to go straight to baggage control. With only the briefest look to check some verisimilitude with our passport photos, the security guards let us through.

A large people carrier then whisked us into central Jakarta where – at the prestigious Intercontinental Hotel – we were not allowed to do anything as mundane as check in, or take our baggage to our rooms. That was all dealt with while we sat in the bar drinking complimentary gin and tonics.

The other examiner had carelessly picked up the wrong suitcase at Jakarta airport and had walked off with it: it was only the hotel receptionist who noticed that the name on the luggage didn’t match the name on the passport. In the real world, that would be a disaster (imagine the person whose luggage had been taken, forlornly watching the wrong bag going round and round the carousel), but oh dear me, not here, oh no.

Details were softly taken in hushed tones, phone calls were made and as we sat and chatted, the correct suitcase turned up, with nary a comment. Quite, quite extraordinary.

I hope that’s gone some way to set the scene and provide some context to what it feels like to be an examiner here.

Tomorrow the lovely Angke (receptionist at the hotel, aged 18, visage like a 50s Hollywood model, tall as a Greek statue, shapely legs making up about two thirds of her height, light as an angel, braces on her teeth) will take myself and another examiner round Jakarta to show us her favourite areas of the city. What happens then will decide whether the next blog is continuing this thread or starting another, entirely unrelated one.

See you then… I hope…


I feel like I’ve got something out of my system with that last rant about the long haul flight from London to Singapore, so as this blog’s Fotherington-Thomas yin to last blog’s Victor Meldrew yang, here’s a little about the extraordinary joy that was the short haul flight from Singapore to Jakarta.

It all started with the clouds. I don’t know whether it was something about the weather, the fact that we were just over the equator, the height we were at relative to the clouds, or just some happy circumstance of nature, but it was the most wonderful display of collections of 10 micron suspended water droplets that I’ve ever seen.

That, coupled with the easy view of the many islands as we flew over, entirely changed my mood. The books say that ‘Indonesia has between 13,000 and 17,000 islands’. Between? Between? That means they’re not sure of the whereabouts of up to 4,000 islands. That sounds more like something out of the Lost City of Atlantis, or some of the stranger meanderings of Terry Pratchett.

Even the names of clouds are evocative; cirrus, cumulus, nimbus and their conjuncts cirro-stratus, cumulo-nimbus and so on, roll off the tongue, the pen and the qwertyuiop in a meteorological wave of assonance and resonance with soft elegance and easy charm. Who wouldn’t be a weatherman?

  • Note to self: do not attempt to describe something that’s been done before, better, by master wordsmiths. For example, do not, under any circumstances, attempt to describe the suicidal ramblings of an orphaned Danish Prince or the remarkable sensation of eating biscuits your grandmother used to make.
I’m afraid I’m going to ignore my own advice. In spite of some of the most wonderful literary landscape artists having already turned their hands to describing weather, in the next blog I’m going to have a go. Wish me luck. I just need a day to prepare myself. Wish me luck.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Flying. It's boring. Boring boring boring.

Flying is boring. There, I’ve said it and you can’t make me unsay it. Flying is boring.

It is, of course, ridiculous. Here’s the case for the defence:
  • You’re six or seven miles up in the air, travelling at speeds that it’s hard to imagine – approaching 1000 kilometres an hour (hey, isn’t that 1 megametre? now there’s a word you don’t find in everyday use) or 600mph in old money;
  • You have free access to about 50 or 60 films, 100 TV programmes, countless CDs, playlists and spoken books;
  • You of course brought your iPod, 2 magazines and a ‘worthy’ book that you know you must get round to reading, and isn’t a long flight just the time;
  • They handed you a free paper when you got on, they feed you and supply you with limitless alcohol, and yet, and yet, and yet…
Here’s the case for the prosecution:
  • You’re bored. B.O.R.E.D.
I rest my case.

There’s something about the constant low-grade hum, the atmosphere and the size of the seats that just contrive to suck all the life-force out of every human being trapped in that flying torpedo.

[While we’re on the subject of low-grade hum, that in itself should be pretty amazing. You’re maybe as little as ten metres from an engine powerful enough to casually toss 160,000kg (hey, hey, hey… 160 MEGAGRAMMES!) of metal into the air and keep it up in the stratosphere, and all you can hear is ‘a low grade hum’. Wow. Big deal, Mr Think-You’re-So-Clever Jet Engine. Frank Whittle’s great invention reduced to a low grade hum. Ha.]

My 12 hour flight to Singapore had at least two wonderful distractions to add some interest. Firstly a 2½ hour wait on the tarmac while they tried to work out whether it was safe to fly (which was at least encouraging), and then 3 babies who took it in turns to entertain the passengers with assorted cries, moans and expressions of pain and anguish that would have put a Greek chorus to shame.

Between the three of them they covered most of those 12 hours. Thanks guys, at least that provided me with some sort of visceral reality to hang on to during those otherwise emotionally sterile 12 hours. 12 hours. 12 boring hours. I’ll never get them back, you know.

In case you’re interested, I never even started that worthy book. There’s always the flight back.