It's a strange thing: before I left Australia I wasn't nervous. Not even excited. Nothing, even on the plane. For almost a year now this trip has been nothing more than a distant fantasy, a conversation-filler, a nice 'wouldn't it be great if…' idea. So by the time I'd actually boarded the plane the fact that this abstract dream had been realised was still somewhat lost on me.
But then I landed in Jakarta. It wasn't until I'd cleared customs (customs, mind you, being nothing more than an uniformed officer asking for a 'souvenir' of US$2) and stepped out onto the cab rank that it dawned on me. With dozens of taxi drivers, porters, hotel agents and money changers descending upon the only tourist in sight shouting 'Hotel! Cheap! US Dollars? Taxi! Cheap!' my blase, 'she'll be right' attitude of the past six months evaporated in seconds.
I was alone. In a city I knew nothing about. In a country I knew nothing about. Everything was strange: the people, the language, even the smell. No one spoke English. I couldn't read the signs. I didn't know what to do, where to go. Everyone was staring at me. I didn't know where I was. For God sakes I didn't even know where I'd be staying that night.
felt sick. Paralysed.
I was alone. In a city I knew nothing about. In a country I knew nothing about ... what had I done?
Shit. What had I done? Five months of this?
With the help of an excessively generous donation to a silver-tongued taxi driver, I soon found myself at Jalan Jaksa, the Jakarta street that has become the unofficial headquarters for backpackers in this city thanks to a write up or three in Lonely Planet. I managed to look confused and bewildered enough for a hostel manager to trap me in the street and usher me in to Army Hostel for 35,000 rupiah (AUS $7). For my $7 I get a yellowed mattress, a fan, a squat toilet and a tap mounted on the ceiling (he called it a shower, I wasn't so sure).
Downstairs at this decrepit hostel is a little watering hole known as the New Memories Cafe, one of many cafes on Jalan Jaksa catering to the backpacking crowd. Western music, plenty of food and lots of the local beer Bintang are the main drawcards at this dingy homage to yobs with backpacks. As I kicked back and took refuge from Jakarta's heat on my first night from home, I took the opportunity to get to know some of the other travellers over a beer or three. One of them was Scott, a 30-something American ex-Navy Seal who works at the nearby American Embassy and who, despite the recent attacks on American tourists in the city response to George Bush's 'Let's bomb the hell out of Afghanistan' policy, still proudly wears an American embassy t-shirt and a ferocious 'come get me' look on his face. This guy is not normal. He's the kind of man who gives right wing militias a bad name: your typical gun-totin', flag lovin' son of Uncle Sam.
It didn't take me long to classify backpackers in Jakarta into two well-defined groups. First, there are the long-term 'wanker' travellers who've been here for a while. They're always male, single, and obsessed with the local women. Whether it's flirting with them, having sex with them, or simply just comparing 'score cards' with other likeminded men, there's no changing the subject. And the women, especially around Jalan Jaksa, love it. They come here from across the city here to get / brag about / marry / sleep with foreign guys, and little deters them from their course. Giggles and smiles is all you'll get in response to any questions asked of the local girls. Of course, all this breeds contempt and jealousy from the local men towards male tourists and unfriendly glares are not uncommon. These backpackers don't care much for the local culture and don't venture outside Jalan Jaksa, after all everything they want (beer and women) are right here.
Second, come the traditional backpackers, almost invariably couples from Australia, Europe or the US looking to 'expand their horizons' and see the world. They're lovely, but they're couples. As you quickly learn: three's a crowd.
I had expected to come to Jakarta, meet another like-minded traveller and head off in search of experience. It soon became apparent that neither group of backpackers are very pleasant group of people to travel with.
It's 4:00 am. The local mosque has just started broadcasting its call to prayer. It's hot. It's humid, and bed bugs have started to descend on my helpless body. I can't sleep. I'm uncomfortable. I hate these people. I hate this smell. I hate this place. I want to go home. I've lost my appetite and haven't eaten for thirty-six hours. Five months of this?
The second day of my so-called 'life changing journey' was much the same. All day I did nothing but fuel my fears and try and think of creative excuses to make coming home look like less of a cop out. Contemplated trying to contract dysentery. Looked up the symptoms in my Lonely Planet and after reading the words 'explosive diarrhea' quickly dismissed the idea. I didn't have the courage to venture beyond Jalan Jaksa. Didn't really have the desire. I was amazed at my own lack of confidence. Ally? Lacking confidence? Unbelievable. Sure I'd travelled before, but nothing like this.
Japan, Europe, the States were all so Westernised, so familiar. But Jakarta is so far removed from anything I'd call 'familiar' that merely buying some dinner from a street hawker had me recoiling in fear. Should I bargain? Is it clean? What is it? How do I communicate?
Contemplated trying to contract dysentry ... but after after reading the words ‘explosive diarrhea’ quickly dismissed the idea.
Five months of this?
It should come as no surprise to those who know me that the only force strong enough to shock me out of my wading pool of self-commiseration was my ego. On my third day in Jakarta I made the acquaintance of a naïve and earnest Australian named Adrian who was on his first trip overseas and despite my rather pathetic state of mind, I immediately took pity upon him. With his guidebook in one hand, camera in the other and a bespectacled and confused expression on his face, Adrian may as well have stood in middle of the street yelling 'I am lost and vulnerable, I implore you to liberate me from my wallet and other valuables!'
But rather than spend the first hours of his trip curled up in the foetal position like another young traveller who shall remain nameless, Adrian's entire body crackled with excitement. As he flipped though his guidebook reeling off the names of a dozen sights he wanted to cram in on his first day, I found myself offering to join him. He'd be torn to shreds out there, I thought, and no matter how bad I might be feeling, I was duty bound to protect him from this city. And although that's how I may have justified it to myself, the reality was that I was jealous. This boy's courage and enthusiasm in such a daunting environment had put me to shame. It was time I jumped in and learned to swim.
with only two words of Bahasa - 'Berap?' ('How much?') which is almost immediately followed by 'Mahal!' ('too expensive!') - Adrian and I headed to Kota, the old Dutch Quarter in Jakarta and finally to the old Dutch port where countless wooden Dutch schooners are still used to transport timber around the country. We also dropped in at a school where the grandson of Indonesia's greatest puppeteer is trying to keep this dying art alive by teaching others.
It took all of three hours to get the hang of Jakarta living, and for my old self to return. Bargaining, always done with a smile, is usually fun; crossing a six lane highway simply involves closing your eyes and walking into oncoming traffic (the traffic stops, usually); instant 'friends' will show you around town, but insist on a exorbitant 10,000 rupiah / AUS $2 tip at the end.
Suddenly I was loving it, revelling in the sensory overload that surrounded us. The sight of twenty live chicken bound at the feet and tied to the bike handle of a whistling street vendor, or a stolen glimpse of naked children sprinting and laughing their way around destitute slums. The communion of sweet musk and tamarind with the acrid stench of rotting garbage and smog. The earnest wails calling people to prayer and the unremitting honks, shouts and mechanical squeals of Jakarta traffic. And the taste, oh the taste. Battling a still-weak appetite, I felt driven to eat everything in sight just to see if each flavour could match the last. Nasi goreng, nasi uduk, dumplings, fritters… I just can't get enough.
We caught bajais back to our hostel and spent the night drinking with other travellers and brushing off the advances of 'guy-girls' who frequent Jalan Jaksa looking for a foreign man to whisk them away to the West.
In twenty-four short hours my attitude's reversed. I love this city. I love these people. I love this food. Everything's strange, but that's what I love about it. Survival is easy, travelling's a blast.
5 months of this?
Bring it on.