Jakarta is slung in a pale grey sky. Monuments of men and women with arms flung to the air, soar above the city.
The roads heave with vehicles of every size and shape like a page from Johnny’s Richard Scarry books.
Buses, bikes, bemos, becaks blend into a tangled rope of metal and rubber and people which twists and hums in a haze of brown smoke.
On a vast roundabout we spot embassies of different countries. The flags – red, green and yellow – hang solemnly in the sodden air.
“South Africa,” says Tony, just like when we went to Canberra and had to guess all the flags on Embassy Drive.
“Hotel Indonesia Pak?” the taxi driver asks expectedly . We are expectant too and lean out the window as the tall, intersecting rectangles of a grand hotel glide into view.
“Tidah, tidah,” Dad impresses, “Hotel Jakarta.”
The taxi driver swings the wheel, indicates with his arm out the window and flings the car back around the roundabout.
Men walk along the roadside in bright white shirts and dark trousers, their blue black hair neatly tucked under soft black hats.
I don’t see any women on the street but pretty women with pale skin look down from billboards which tell us to drink Nestle’s milk.
“Look Dad, ‘Bagus!’,” Matt reads his first Indonesian words on the sign.
“Bagus, bagus sekali!” we chant.
The driver laughs now as he presses the horn wildly and squeezes the car into daylight between the pressing vehicles on either side.
Slowly a great vista opens out before us and the bleak buildings fall away. The hotel’s steep straw roof held by deeply carved teak beams floats upon a rippling sea.
Avenues of palms, waves of green grass and lilies of orange and red and blue fan out toward the foot of a whispering volcano.
A man in white robes, a red sash around his waist, stands on the hotel’s deep verandah.
The ground beneath us starts to rise and roll – gently at first – then shudders and bangs to a halt, then rocks me hard into the door.
“Chas, Chas, wake up c’mon,” Matt shakes me hard. “We’re here, there’s a lift and we’ve got two whole rooms and there’s a fridge in the room with bottles of …”
I stagger out of the taxi, miss the step and pull myself up, blinking to register the modern three storey brick block with aluminium windows and a polished gold spinning door.
A hand steadies me and gently prises the tacky, misshapen pig out from where it is wedged between my waist and my arm.
The smiling young man escorts me and the pig into the cool cavity of the hotel so that my first disappointment of not being in a Sumatran mirage is completely forgiven.
A few short steps from the magic of the chromed and mirrored elevator, we find delicious beds of cold cotton sheets and, once Mum has us washed and brushed, we all fall inexorably into the deepest most delicious sleep.
Jakarta appears to be little more than a village when American architects Abel and Wendy Sorensen arrived to contribute a design for the Hotel Indonesia which set the stage for Jakarta’s relentless development and modernity.
Indonesia’s extraordinary monuments, including the 1961 Selamat Datang (Welcome) Monument by Indonesian sculptor Edhi Sunarso sits on the Hotel Indonesia Roundabout (Bundaran Hotel Indonesia). The spate of monument construction is regarded by some as President Soekarno‘s way of pretending the country wasn’t going to the wall. Like many leaders before and since who find themselves in a tight spot, Soekarno chose to distract the people with major projects and sporting events – in his case the Asian Games IV in 1962.
The next phase of Jakarta’s expansion will include the new and excessive Australian / Embassy / Compound where future Australian diplomats and embassy workers will be so hermetically sealed off from the rest of Indonesia they will never be in fear of running out of vegemite.
The extreme ‘barbican-esque’ designed by Denton Corker Marshall will cost $4150mill and be clad in a ‘show off’ skin of zinc, copper and steel. Since the Australian Embassy became a target for terrorists and 11 people died following a car bombing in 2004, the idea of an Embassy or a High Commission as an open and breezy place where you could drop in and read the Age and have a chinwag with ‘Our man in London etc.’ has long gone.
Sadly, embassies of today are highly secure and corporatised spaces and it’s unlikely that children will ever experience the sense of being momentarily transported back home within their walls.
The terrorists and security advisors have won case. It seems the new Australian Embassy will be a beacon for enclaved communities, fattened on plundered wealth, rather than a space which evokes shared optimism for a sustainable future.
For Australians living out on the fringes of suburbia, real traffic was not a known phenomena. For us, Richard Scarry was the only insight into what a truly busy place a city could be and Jakarta was reminiscent of one of the richly illustrated ‘Cars and Trucks and things that go’ which I so loved to pore over. The pig family in their car in the centre of the picture here isn’t a bad representation of us on our first day in Indonesia – keen and excited but fairly overheated.
Seeing our first Bemo (A shortened version of Becak – Motor) was a real treat – a 3 wheeled vehicle of play school shape and naughty boy noise level. The demise of this humble vehicle from the relentless progress of the city is sad to note. However (as I recall) the pollution they generated possibly wouldn’t be missed.
My dream of a Sumatran village hotel came from reading too many books before we left which didn’t in anyway prepare me for the reality of Jakarta – much the same was true of my most recent visit where the energy of the city is still quite breathtaking. Memory escapes me of the real name of the hotel we stayed in that first day but I came across a ‘Hotel Amazing Jakarta’ which looked about the right size and was in the south side of the city – in readiness to head to Bandung.
The Selamat Datang pic is from Indonesia Matters – a blog run by expat Aussies Chris and David for their Mau Ke Mana travel agency in Surabaya.
If Indonesia sounds too exciting you can always try the roundabouts and embassy tours of Canberra.
The demise of the Bemo http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2010/02/01/comments-039bemo-brink-extinction039.html
If you would like to stay at the newly refurbished Hotel Indonesia you may – of course – google it, as I can’t really advertise a luxury hotel chain here.