Thursday, August 26, 2010

Obama's madrassa

Well, here it is. A few of us cabbed it across town during rush hour and arrived after they'd locked the gates for the day. The 40-minute ride cost us about $6.50. The cabbie had to ask around a bit for how to find the school--stopping at one point to ask for help from a couple cops wearing camouflage fatigues in colors best described as New York Mets--but we finally pulled up in front and immediately began taking pictures.

The school, a highly regarded public elementary school with tidy facilities, is located on a quiet side street in the shady Menteng neighborhood of Jakarta. Nearby homes are stately--the Romanian embassy is a couple doors down--and the neighborhood was by far the quietest and most comfortably residential I've seen in my short time and limited wanderings here. Well tended.

A little beyond the Romanians, the street dead-ends in a tree-lined park where we were approached by a vendor hawking packs of cigarettes. He had nine different brands on offer, 10 or so packs of each at the ready. Throughout the park people sat chatting on benches, on the base of a Javanese statue, under a Sundanese canopy as the sun set. Very chill oasis. Even with traffic coursing around the perimeter of the park, it was quiet and felt quieter. So far the softest-feeling place I've stood in Jakarta.

Earlier this week, I had a chance to visit a couple Jakarta landmarks, including the Masjid Istiqlal, or Independence Mosque, the largest such building in Southeast Asia. A security guard who doubled as our tour guide claimed it can hold more than 225,000 people, which frankly seems like a stretch (two-plus Rose Bowl crowds? (Wikipedia claims capacity of about 120,000)) but there's no denying the structure is built for load-bearing. Made of East Javanese marble and jarringly shiny German stainless steel, the mosque is heavy.

It's dense, and away from the bright neon lights inside, it's dark. The prayer rugs on the main floor offer worshippers a place to sit and even lie down but they do so in a room dominated by 12 giant steel pillars that stretch toward an interior illuminated dome that changes colors each day. Hanging from the pillars are harsh white lights that amplify the severity of a couple hundred thousand linear feet of stainless steel pressing down on you, on the floor, into the earth. The mosque was built with former Indonesian President Suharto directly involved in the design and clearly was meant to be a symbol of both nationhood and presidenthood. That's how it still comes off: Big. And strong.

On the walk back to our hotel from the mosque, we stopped to watch some Jakarta traffic. Mostly, we had no choice. Getting across the road literally requires dodging cars and motorcycles and bajaj and whatever else is incessantly buzzing down the road. Not pedestrian friendly in any way--pedestrian malicious, even--Jakarta is a study in traffic capacity and absurdism.

We also found some pet shops.

Including one with a monkey.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Street life

Long day for us in orientation but made it out again this evening for a walk near the hotel. Jakarta, like the rest of Indonesia, is observing Ramadan. This means people are fasting from dawn to dusk and I'm pretty sure it means that some street vendors and stands that would normally operate during the day are closed until nightfall. Maybe they don't normally operate during the day but the nighttime scene is pretty vibrant. While out walking tonight, came across a small outdoor market off the main road filled with food stalls and an open-air tailor who was sewing what looked like about 100 yards of white cloth under a very bright fluorescent lamp. Also came across a group of very friendly children who were playing badminton in the street. Behind them, another group of kids playing with fireworks.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Getting there

I arrived in Jakarta this morning from Singapore after about a day and a half of travel from ORD. Thus concludes an incredible month of Leaving Chicago that saw my 93-year-old grandma die and a bad and freakish west suburban flood wipe out about 275 books and sundry other stuff I'd stored in my mom's basement before heading overseas. The very end of that month also brought news that my dog, Olive, has terminal lymphoma. This rotten and honestly heartbreaking fucking development came just a day before Olive and Missy left for a new life in the green hills of western Mass., and it means that my goodbyes with the dog a week and a half ago were permanent. Thinking about that scene and about the inescapable hard truth of Olive's diagnosis makes me sad, even here, half-way around the world, caught up in all the shock of the new that attends meeting and greeting 43 new acquaintances--almost all of them young going on younger--as we jump into the relatively unknown, together and individually. I brought Olive's old collar and tags and will carry them with me throughout this trip. Great dog, good friend and sweet companion. She'll be nine in November, and that just wasn't enough time with her.

Not much to say yet about Indonesia. Arrived this morning and we were bused to the very swank Aston Marina hotel in Central Jakarta. Short organizational meeting followed by health-saving six-hour sleep. Took a walk near the hotel tonight, down a busy thoroughfare lined with open-air vendor booths and carts and the enclosed street eateries called warungs. Lots of cigarettes, pop, fried rice, fried seafood, skewered chicken, skewered squid. I'd read sidewalks are mostly a myth and found this to be true; lots of walking in the street, sharing space with small-displacement motorcycles, rickety little motorcycle cabs, and the occasional diesel bus. Sampled zero food but found a couple places that look promising for later in the week.

These shops and tents and carts, spilling all over what would be the public way, were lined up along an arterial thoroughfare opposite a large shopping mall complex that was closed for the night. Guards posted outside the mall, and traffic barricades too. Other side of the street, significantly more approachable if jarringly ad hoc. Guy directing diners into one of the more promising seafood joints was actually sitting on a stool in the near lane of this busy street. He simply put a couple cones in front of him and traffic steered around his perch. Getting around him--which I'm guessing was the point--meant walking into the middle of the street, and who wants to do that? Have a seat. Grab a dinner! But if you walk into the street, beyond the cones and around the hawker, the motorcycles and moto-cabs will drive around you, too. Everyone just squeezing by.