Our hotel in Jakarta was full of Formula E racing technicians. We learned what that is when Steve chatted up one of them at the breakfast buffet. Turns out they work on Formula One-style race cars that are powered by electric batteries; one of their big global competitions was taking place in the Indonesian capital June 3 and 4. When I tuned the TV in our room to one of the local stations, the meet seemed to be getting non-stop coverage.It looked like the race would take place at some course near the sea.
I knew nothing about this, of course, when I booked the hotel for the last two nights of our Indonesian stay. I picked it because of its location in Jakarta’s historic center, the decrepit neighborhood from which Dutch overseers long extracted riches from these spice-rich islands. It takes some effort to imagine how cool and trendy the area might be if someone poured vast amounts of money and effort into fixing it up.
The old town even has canals a la Hollandaise.
For now, however, the area’s main attraction is the stone-paved Fatahillah square, lined with imposing buildings from which Dutch bosses once wielded their power.The town hall was built in 1627.That building with the red tile roof now houses the Cafe Batavia, where we ate dinner.
We spent some time Friday morning prowling around the old square, then walked to the grand old train station nearby, now serving only commuter trains.In a different latitude we might have hiked the 2-3 miles from there to central Jakarta, but the heat and humidity made that unthinkable.Instead we enjoyed a tuk-tuk ride that gave us insight into Jakarta’s infamous traffic.
Overall I felt we amply fulfilled our touristic duty. The tuk-tuk took us to the enormous park surrounding Merdeka (Independence) Square and its dramatic national monument.We abandoned our plans to climb to top when we learned it would probably take three hours to get up there, the line of locals already was that long.
The nearby national museum was less crowded. We could have spent hours, had we more time and energy but instead mostly marveled at the galleries focusing on Indonesia’s paleoanthropology. Somehow homonids who walked upright made their way from Africa to these islands a million and a half years ago. How did that happen?
After a delicious lunch in an atmospheric restaurant, we returned to the hotel, where I got my second (and final!) Indonesian massage, and Steve sought insight into the Formula E event from Google. Among other things, he found a video clip starring an ultra-perky Formula E hostess who obviously had been assigned the task of doing a piece that would make her TV viewers think Jakarta was the coolest imaginable site for the event. She and we had gone to almost all the same places! But I was flabbergasted to see how clean and colorful and exciting it all looked onscreen. Somehow Miss Booster’s footage omitted any view of all the squalor I couldn’t help but notice.
Steve and I ate our final dinner at Cafe Batavia, housed in a 200-year-old building built of teak, and I confessed to souring on the capital. Sure, we’d had a good day cutting touristic notches in our belts, but if I had to live here, I’d consider blowing my brains out, I declared. This corrupt, ugly home to 28 million is sinking rapidly into the sea, and although Indonesian President Joko Widodo has a grand plan to move the capital to Kalimantan (on Borneo) and make it a green paragon, I can’t imagine this will work out as planned.
Steve had a slightly different take. He gestured to the scene visible through the second-story window adjoining our table.It was a bit before 7 pm, and people were wandering into the square and plopping down on the stones. You could feel all the energy pulsing through the place, Steve insisted. And it emanated from some of the sweetest people we’ve met anywhere.
As if to underscore his point, our waiter came up to the table and started chatting with us about our trip. What did we think of Indonesia? Where had we gone? What about the weather — was it hotter than California? This went on for at least 10 minutes. I felt bad for the other diners who were being ignored but deeply charmed to be in a place where waiters could be so curious; could feel so free to learn something from some outsiders.
We left the restaurant to explore the scene further. I don’t want to be another Miss Booster and try to make you think you’ll be missing out if you don’t hop on a plane to join in. It was still hot and humid, though no longer unbearably so. We found infectious live music on all four corners of the square and along other nearby walkways, but none of the performers were good enough to make me want to plunk myself down on the hard rough ground in the dark.Still it all looked extraordinarily convivial. Little kids tossed lighted twirling things into the air or blew bubbles. Their parents snacked on chips and drank soda. I saw a few folks getting their pictures taken with the living statues.
I also saw a bunch of the wannabe photo props bored by the lack of business.
It made me feel more sanguine too. I still don’t want to live in Jakarta. I can’t imagine I’ll return for another visit. But I did amble back to the hotel feeling what I’ve felt over and over on this trip —profound gratitude that I had this chance to glimpse what it’s like to live on the Ring of Fire.
PS: I shot this from my window seat on the plane going into Jakarta as we were flying somewhere over Borneo. But it’s the closest we got to any big geological events. We didn’t feel so much as a small jolt. That was fine with me too.