Big Durian Diary

Sunday, June 29, 2008

It wasn't until the rickety little boat got underway across the Ciliwung to Sunda Kelapa that I finally understood why Jakarta was called The Big Durian. The olfactory assault cannot be trivialized, but balanced against everything I enjoyed here it was no more than a temporary annoyance. But I'm getting ahead of myself. What was I doing in Jakarta? As with much of my current life, it's all Cathy's fault ... :-)

Our story started six months ago, when Cat joined the photography workshop of Peter Bialobrzeski. Little did I expect that Cat would end up with her pics on exhibit at the Goethe Institut in Jakarta, nor that Goethe Institut would sponsor her there for the exhibit opening and a follow-up seminar with Peter. Of course when I found out, there was no way to stop me from going along! I had to pay for my own fare, of course, but with the hotel taken care of I was confident I could get around and feed in Jakarta on the cheap. Which was exactly what I did, with the indispensable help of two new friends, Aisyah and Francis.

While Cat went around with Peter and the other participating photographers, all shepherded by the very meticulous (and therefore quite sleepless) project coordinator Henri Ismail, I took my chance to do a photo hunt. Henri introduced me to Fransiskus Adi Pramono and Aisyah Andamari, two university students from Bandung he had tapped to help out in the Goethe project. The two of them helped me plan my city itinerary, walked everywhere with me despite the sultry heat of Jakarta, took me to some great places to eat, even risked their selves and cameras with me on a rather nervous crossing of the Ciliwung River to get to the old port area. (Thanks so much, you two - and when you get to Manila I'll have a big bucket of ice cream waiting for you.) Here's a rundown on what we did:

June 3: Arrival
Arrived in Jakarta after a most uncomfortable flight. Something on the plane triggered a really bad allergic reaction in me, so my nose was running and I think I was even running a fever in the latter stages of the flight. Fortunately I got to the Cemara Hotel where Cat was booked without a hitch, and got a good night's sleep. First impressions of Jakarta: the city looks better developed and organized than Manila.

June 4: Satay? Charge!
Despite my feeling ill on the flight, I woke up before Cathy - and I woke up feeling fine. Took a huge breakfast at the hotel's buffet, deliberately stuffing myself so I could go without lunch if need be. As I was unable to contact Francis earlier, I had planned to go see the city on my own or even go with Cat's group though the latter choice seemed to promise far less shooting opportunities. Then I was able to get through to Francis, so back to the original plan.

I met Francis and Aisyah at the hotel, but as they were not able to get away until late in the morning, we met at around 11:30. First thing, we planned what to do and where to go, organizing our itinerary by city district. You have to allow for traffic delays in Jakarta, so it's best to group your intended destinations by location - this temple and this port are in the city's north, this is in the south, this food place is in the center, etc etc. - and without a good map of Jakarta I really had to rely on my guides' knowledge of the city. We settled on going to the National Museum first, then from there to the National Monument and the nearby Istiqlal Mosque, and from there go to the temples in Glodok and hopefully be at the port area by sunset.

At least, that was the plan until we got to the museum. With its size and the sheer breadth of its exhibits, we stayed for an hour or two longer than I had expected. My only complaint: no aircon! And no lights! There were parts of the museum where the ventilation was nonexistent, and the richness of the exhibits was not done justice by the lack of lights. Indeed, some parts of the museum looked like we were the first visitors there in weeks, maybe even months. But the sight of all the artifacts really firmed up my determination to come here again, to shoot the temples of Bali, Borobodur and Prambanan.

We cut short our visit to the MONAS (Monumen Nasional) and dropped the Istiqlal in favor of heading for Glodok - Jakarta's Chinatown, where its Buddhist temples are. I got some good shots of the temples, including a series of Jakarta's Chinese at their devotions - and then I ran out of ammo. My battery was dead! That's the thing with my Nikon - you do a lot of low-light shots, the battery goes much quicker. As there was now no point in proceding to Sunda Kelapa harbor as originally planned, we hied back to the city center to eat.

We reached the Sabang district, one of Jakarta's main street hawker centers, and I quickly got busy on the satay. My driving force: if you can't shoot it, eat it. I got satay ayam (chicken) and satay kambing (mutton). Fantastic! The mutton was chewy, but nowhere as tough as what Cat had gotten the previous evening.

As a pleasant - though initially scary - surprise, my satay kambing included several skewers of sheep liver. I say scary because I rarely eat organ meats outside, these being first to spoil. But they were good, and genuine Indonesian satay sauce is a real revelation - so fresh, so full of flavor.

This was supposed to have been dinner, as it was by then around 5pm, but on returning to the hotel Cat got me to tag along with the group for Peter's seminar - and to a pleasant surprise: there was dinner waiting for us at the Goethe.

June 5: Sea Legs? What Sea Legs?
Day 2 again began with a big breakfast at the Cemara's cafe, where I began to OD seriously on sambal. I'd taken some already the day before with my satay, but this morning I really upped my intake as the hellishly hot stuff went so well with hash browns and sausages. Then off again with Francis and Aisyah at 10. Our first destination: back to Glodok's temples, this time with a fully charged battery. After shooting my fill at the temples, we walked back to the main road, stopping along the way at the Trio Minang restaurant for lunch.

The Trio Minang is a Padang food restaurant that's been around since 1978, and from the dense crowds within and at the takeout counter it's obvious they've been doing something right. So I sat down with my guides for a meal of beef rendang, goat curry, and a dish of fried dried beef topped with spicy curry sauce. Again, spice heaven. I could live on this stuff. Padang food, Francis tells me, is considered one of the hottest types of Indonesian food. Yes, I was definitely sweating, and there were some items that made my eyes water a bit. But hey, I'm kinky - that pain was absolutely *righteous*.

From Glodok, we hopped a bus to the Kota district - in colonial times, the waterfront heart of old Batavia. Gauging our time allotments by the sun's position, we whiled away the time before the onset of the golden afternoon light by touring the Museum Bahari (the nautical museum), where I also got to do some research on Southeast Asian maritime history for Syrene, and the Wayang Museum which has a huge collection of puppets from various cultures across Indonesia. Musing on the yawning gap between Indonesia's cultural heritage and that of the Philippines, I felt so bad about the Philippine colonial experience. Culture is definitely a living thing in Indonesia, and it's definitely Asian. The Philippines? Hah! A Latin American banana republic on the wrong side of the Pacific.

We capped the afternoon with a boat ride across the Ciliwung estuary to Sunda Kelapa harbor. I'll never forget the experience - and yes, Francis, I was definitely quakey in the knees there. The only way to the harbor from the Pasar Ikan market is by boat, in this case a rather wobbly little canoe propelled by a single paddler. The boat had no outriggers, so it could very easily capsize were any of us to step wrong or even lean too far. Which was really amusing, because when you get three photographers on board a boat they all lean different ways and angles to get their shots!

I was in absolute dread of losing my balance and dropping my camera into the totally opaque, filthy, reeking brown waters. At the same time, I was exuberant. This was the Jakarta for adventurers, not casual tourists! I got shots of the Bugis-designed perahu phinisi - wooden-hulled ships seemingly straight from the days of Sinbad, with their high sterns and pointed prows, and the rickety narrow gangplanks connecting them to the wharf. I had to marvel at the dockworkers, who could run up and down those narrow planks for endless loads of cement and other cargo destined for the farther islands.

I asked Francis to have the boatman take us close in to the perahus, and got rather more than I bargained for - we went right between the sterns of two of them, so close I had to hunker down to keep from banging my head on the hull of one perahu. Getting off the boat was a whole adventure in itself, as we had to hop from boat to boat to get to the wharf. A most trying experience for one with a deficient sense of balance - and in hindsight, what fun! As I laughingly told my guides afterward, it's a disaster if something bad happens, otherwise it's an adventure.

As I was too tired from walking all day to join Cat again at the Goethe House, I bought satay at Sabang to eat in our hotel room. I was also too tempted by the Cemara's cute little rooftop pool and the enticing view it gave of Jakarta's skyline. There was no better cure for heat exhaustion than a night dip, with the pool all to myself, followed by a session of shooting the urban skyline. I'm happy to say I'm still a dab hand at estimating exposure times - set camera to bulb, f18, and just counted the seconds off like we used to do in the darkroom or when shooting the streets of Manila and Malate back in my college days. My timing was also perfect: shortly after I finished and returned to the room, the sky cut loose with a massive thunderstorm.

June 6: Shop Til You Drop
With our flight set for 0050 hours June 7th, we had the whole day ahead of us to go around the city again - but this time without guides, as Francis and Aisyah had to return to Bandung. No problem - Cat and I walked to Sabang so I could round off my street food shots. I had planned to make my way down Sabang just buying this and that food item, but we had to shop for presents so we ended up going to the Sarinah mall. Lunch at the food court, where I thoroughly enjoyed a fried beef dish, while Cat unfortunately chose a gourami fillet that she found tasteless, then back up to do early Christmas shopping.

We might have gotten better prices at a bazaar, but on the other hand the Sarinah was close to the hotel, had English-speaking staff, and was secure. So, shopping. My nose died and went to heaven at my first whiff of Torajan coffee. On the other hand, I had no stomach for kopi luwak - coffee beans that had been eaten then excreted by a civet cat. When I want coffee, I mean Kopi, not Poo-pi! Indonesian chocolate is also very good, specially Silver Queen's dark chocolate with cashew nuts. Back to Goethe in the late afternoon, and a last round of beer with Henri and Novi. Nice people. We kept urging Henri to take more beer, so he could finally sleep!

Off to the airport at 2100, and just in time too - traffic was very bad, probably made worse by the fact that it was raining. Not much difference from Manila there! Our flight home was via PAL, with a lot of Pinoy OFWs along. Note to self: when expecting to fly with a lot of returning OFWs, check in early. You can't blame the OFWs for returning home with bags loaded, but if everybody stops to argue at the check-in counter then move off to repack, you get a most irritating experience at the line. More people should do as my dad used to - he brought his own spring scale along, and even before he left his hotel he knew exactly what each piece of his luggage weighed. Better yet, hotels and maybe PAL should provide scales. If every hotel room had bathroom scales, travelers could pack much more strategically. On the other hand, the scales might affect the sales of the hotels' restaurants ....

I was a reluctant passenger going into the plane at last. Given the choice, I'd have marched right back out of the airport and onto the next train to Jogjakarta. There's a lot more to shoot in Indonesia, and I haven't had enough yet. The same goes for satay. I want more ...