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.


  1. Brett, love the article. Like the bit about the park, too.

    Now that you've taken a few days off, please get off your butt and write us some more stuff about Indonesia :) (hahahahahahaha) I hope your school schedule isn't as darn complex as ours. Holy crapbox.

    Andy and Kathryn

  2. Brett you'll have to replace those 275 flooded books with the one you write. Hang on to that sweet dog's collar and keep us along for the ride.
    David Jackson