On the road again
I have been cynical and negative in my writing about Indonesia, the country in which I am currently living; while I stand behind everything I have said about this country, I recognise that my viewpoint has been coloured somewhat by the circumstances through which I find myself doing time here and the fact that I am endlessly frustrated by an apparently endless process to complete something that should be fairly routine.
However, my niece (she became my niece when my parents took her mother Xuan, a doctor from Shanghai into our family because of a traumatic life situation into which she had been thrust; Xuan (Jen) has been my sister ever since and her daughter XiXi, who was a precocious seven-year old at the time, has been my niece) who is now a bright somewhat zany medical student will be visiting us toward the end of July. We will go to Yogyakarta with Yolanda, JJ, and my mother in law. After that XiXi and I might go on to Bali for a few days or perhaps Manado before she flies on to Singapore where she will make the connections to visit her grandparents in Shanghai and in Szechuan province.
The pieces I will presumably post as the result of that little excursion will try to be free of preconceptions and entail straightforward accounts of travels with XiXi. Or Zippy as I call her. So just to get the ball rolling, a little background about the places we’ll be visiting.
Jakarta, of course, is Indonesia’s capital city. For some reason, Indonesia is off most people’s radar screen, despite the fact that it is the most populous primarily Muslim-populated country on earth, the world’s largest archipelago, and second to the United States in total population. Jakarta is unquestionably the heart of the country. Although it in no way represents the unique character and innumerable cultures of the country, Indonesia couldn’t exist without Jakarta at the centre of the web. It’s like Rome during the days of the Empire. Having visited Rome didn’t qualify anyone to say that they were familiar with the Empire, but nobody could claim to be familiar with the Roman Empire if they didn’t have the experience of Rome. In this case all roads lead to Jakarta. Or formerly Djakarta. Or before that, Batavia.
It is filthy, disorganised, polluted, corrupt, vast, traffic choked, venal, exciting, boring, endlessly frustrating and endlessly fascinating. You are always happy and excited to arrive here and you are always much happier when you leave.
Yogyakarta is as great a contrast as you can imagine. It has a complex and fluid relationship of semi-autonomy with the rest of the country…it has its own hereditary Sultan, it is authorised to employ some aspects of S’iaria law, and it is the capital of the “Yogyakarta Special Region’ in central Java, and the centre of traditional Javanese art from wayang to batik. It was once the capital of Indonesia, and its name comes from the ancient words “yogya” mean appropriate, or fit and proper, suitable and “karta” meaning prosperous or successful.
While Jakarta, a city of anywhere from 12 to 28 million people depending on who you ask, and what time of the day it is, is located on the northwest coast of Java, Yogya is about an 8 hour train ride into the interior over gentle hills (the mountains) and through thousands of padi fields, raw jungle, and exotic fruit orchards. We plan to take the train; the last time I went there by car, it was a harrowing experience with roads cut through the most improbable places, blind hairpin turns, and suicidal truck drivers trying to break landspeed records.
It should be interesting, as we will start our train ride at the beginning of Ramadan since Zippy gets here on the 19th; it’ll be fun showing her around Jakarta’s night life until we leave on the evening of the 20th while the police are still zealous. They’ll have closed all the brothels, massage parlours; they’ll be strictly monitoring (looking for bribes) at any hotels that have clubs or bars, and will be shutting down any non-starred hotel bars that don’t cater to the police, army officers, and their respective whores. Nightclubs and “executive Karaoke” clubs and “executive spas” (except for the ones for police officers, ranking military assholes and their mistresses) will be shut down, and, strictly speaking, only hotels catering to tourists will be permitted to sell alcohol…and then with all kinds of odd restrictions, mostly involving handing money to very devout Muslim cops, for whom Ramadan, the month of fasting, prayer, and reflection is a godsend and money maker.
More to come.