After The Crisis: Indonesia in 1998, Part 3
By Gregory McElwain
At Jakarta’s mammoth central post office, I asked a clerk if it really cost 6,500 rupiah to send a postcard to the United States. “More,” she said, plopping an official rate form onto the counter in front of me and pointing to 8,000. “The Crisis,” she said.
Somewhere between Bali and Jakarta, Indonesia became cheaper. The rupiah had nose-dived, and when I arrived in the capital city, the exchange rate was 15,000 to the dollar. I went through the familiar reception-desk charade at a business hotel, where the clerk showed me a list of room rates; singles ranged from $50 to $60. After giving me a moment to skim it, he launched into a we-have-discounts spiel, and I paid $10 a night.
I was a little wary of Jakarta. Not because it had been ground zero for the May riots, but because three foreign men – two Brits and a Japanese – had been killed by cabdrivers not long before I arrived in town. Because of those incidents, some governments had warned their citizens to avoid Java. The State Department hadn’t gone that far; it had rescinded its earlier stay-away-from-Indonesia edict and now merely advised U.S. citizens to avoid hailing taxis on the street and take only hotel cabs. (Fine advice, I thought, if you spend all your time at hotels.) A CNN story I watched the day I arrived in Jakarta didn’t allay my fears. In an interview, Indonesia’s tourism minister said he couldn’t guarantee the safety of tourists visiting the country.
But, I told myself, the U.S. government could say the same things to tourists visiting New York or Florida. Despite all of Jakarta’s bad press, it didn’t feel like a city on the verge of a nervous breakdown. While beggars were stationed on sidewalks near my hotel, a similar New York neighborhood probably has more homeless panhandlers. I walked all over central Jakarta and felt quite safe, though I was always aware of who or what was around me – but I’d behave this way in a U.S. city, too. I hailed cabs on the street and found all my drivers polite. What’s more, they all used their meters – miraculous in a developing country – and I usually paid 30 to 60 cents for rides around town.
Some of those rides took me through Glodok, a Chinese district that took center stage on television coverage of the riots. The area was full of broken windows, boarded-up businesses and burned-out buildings, but life continued amid the rubble. Some of the buildings were being repaired, some windows being replaced. A burned-out mall was being cleaned up. A street market near some of the worst destruction was bustling with people. The only things that undermined the business-as-usual buzz were ghost shops, empty stores that looked like they’d been abandoned forever.
North of Glodok is Kota, center of the 17th century Dutch town Batavia, which grew up to be Jakarta. The 20th century city doesn’t have much to lure travelers – some unintentionally funny socialist monuments, a so-so flea market, a decent national museum, a phallic national monument with an elevator that takes you to the top for a view of the city’s smog and sprawl, malls selling western brands at bargain prices (though many of the price tags had been hastily covered by new tags reflecting the rupiah’s fall). By default, Kota’s Taman Fatahillah, Batavia’s cobblestone town square, is the closest thing Jakarta has to a tourist hub. Museums housed in graceful old Dutch buildings are on three sides of the square, though only the puppet museum is worth visiting. (I especially liked a set of wayang kulit – Adam, Eve, Satan, St. Peter, the fires of hell – made me a missionary who spread the word with shadow puppets.)
A block off the square is a canal lined with palm trees and mostly dilapidated Dutch architecture, a little faux Amsterdam that could be attractive if properly renovated. A model for that sort of urban renewal exists right on Taman Fatahillah in Café Batavia. A huge windowed room overlooking the square, the Batavia has an atmosphere straight out of a Somerset Maugham story: walls covered with black-and-white photos, two long wooden bars, a whitewashed wooden ceiling, snowy tablecloths and napkins, bird cages hanging near the windows and a few well-placed potted palms. The speakers pipe in an endless stream of old scratchy music along the lines of “Blue Skies,” which I listened to while eating the café’s white peppermint sorbet with dark chocolate sauce.
A bit north of the square is Sunda Kelapa, the port that time forgot. Pinisi, huge wooden schooners that look like they’ve been plying the waters since Jakarta was Batavia, dock here. Most of the pinisi carry cargoes of lumber between Java and Borneo. I wandered around the port, where skinny men were unloading and stacking the lumber under a hot midday sun. Behind them were the stately pinisi. Though some had weathered wooden exteriors, most were painted in bright reds and blues and greens and whites. As I strolled up and down the dock, marveling at these floating museums, I saw no other foreigners; Sunda Kelapa was all mine. While I gawked at one beautiful boat, an old man on deck saw me and motioned for me to come aboard. I scampered up a narrow plank and looked around a bit. The sailors smiled and laughed and spoke to me in Indonesian. I laughed back at them and asked if anyone spoke English. One spoke a little, which he tried out on me while his colleagues sat back quietly and looked me over the way I’d been looking at the ships.
After he’d exhausted his tiny English vocabulary, I went down the plank and continued exploring the port when I heard a quiet, “Hey mister.” I turned to see a young man in a tiny wooden rowboat. He offered to paddle me around the schooners for 500 rupiah.
“500?” I asked, assuming he’d made a mistake because $1 was worth 15,000 rupiah, so 500 rupiah was nothing.
“Yes, 500,” he said, holding up five fingers.
I pulled out a 500-rupiah note and waved it at him. He nodded. I got in the boat, and he rowed me down the channel, toward the city, behind the pinisi. I asked his name. Badi, he said. He told me, in English he’d learned at school in Sumatra, that he’d left school at 14 to work on the boats and had been sailing for five years. I asked him if he liked it. It’s my job, he said. But is it a good job? I asked. Yes, yes, he said impatiently, as if that were the stupidest question he’d ever heard. We stopped talking. I admired the massive pinisi and observed shipboard life. Some sailors were lounging or washing clothes or taking showers by pouring water from buckets over their bodies. Others were unloading cargo or cleaning their ships. One man in a tiny boat stood putting a fresh coat of white paint on the side of his pinisi. On one boat, I saw a woman and children; Badi told me that some families lived on the ships.
Badi knew everyone, it seemed, yelling greetings back to those who yelled at him. When we passed one boat, a man waved at Badi, said something and held up five fingers. Badi yelled back and held up five fingers. Much head-nodding and smiling ensued, and I assumed they both thought I was an idiot to pay 500 rupiah for a rowboat ride. When we reached the end of the channel, Badi turned around and rowed toward the sea. I took pictures of the boats and one of Badi and after about half an hour, I told him to head back to the dock. I got out, gave him 5,000 rupiah and told him to ask for at least this much from future travelers. Still, I walked away feeling cheap. Though I’d given him 10 times more than he’d asked for, it was still less than 50 cents.
Read Part 4