Archive for June, 2009


June 28, 2009

Last night I went to see Arham’s concert at Puri Saraswati’s temple pond behind the Lotus Cafe.  Or what I thought was going to be his concert.

Arham is (or claimed to be) the young composer I met on the night bus from Jakarta.  As an amateur musician and aspiring freelancer, it didn’t take much to convince me to see his performance, which he described as an experimental collaboration with a Frenchman.  His (alleged) professor from the University of Karawaci looked on smilingly from a few seats down as Arham and I discussed our musical backgrounds in the stuttering, broken language of Englonesian.  “I want be like Chopin,” he said sheepishly.  “Tapi… from Indonesia.  And with computer.”

As I took my seat, Arham was nowhere in sight.  But it was crowded and dark, and the program called for a ten-minute intermission, so I figured I would track him down then.  The program also said “A House in Bali:  A new gamelan opera.  Original music by Evan Ziporyn, Berkeley, USA.”  But where was Arham’s name?  Puzzled, I carried on an uneasy conversation with the Balinese gentleman to my left, who pointed out the gangsa his son would soon be playing.  “Ini namanya dia,” he said proudly, opening my program and showing me his son’s name.  But where…

I never saw Arham that night.  Here’s what I did see…


bis malam

June 27, 2009

Initial plans had called for a direct flight from Jakarta to Denpasar, but when I heard that the bus might be cheaper, my Jewish side seized the wheel.  Of course I rationalized these penny-pinching instincts with thoughts like “Oh, but I’ll get to see all of Java!” (it is, after all, the world’s 13th-largest island by area) and “Oh, what colorful characters I shall surely meet!” (and the world’s largest island by population)

Spending 24 hours in a bus that advertises, Super Executive Class!  Now with A/C! might not appeal to every traveller.  In addition to the letter in my previous post, I found this review:

With improved roads, the bis malam or night bus from Java to Bali is now faster than the train, although one cannot deny its dangers. Most Indonesians travel this way, but you must be prepared to tolerate cigarette smoke and noise. Non-smoking buses are not available and the volume of videos are usually at their highest. Be sure to specify air-conditioned to avoid inhaling the noxious fumes spewed out by trucks and buses. Look up the Lorena buses, which are suppose to be the best in Bali; it will cost you a little more but deluxe services and a toilet is included.

“Oh no, I never took the bus,” said Oma with a laugh.  “Your Uncle Amir, I think, did, once.”  And in the end it wasn’t even that much cheaper than the plane (Rp 380,000 [US$38] vs. $60-ish to fly). Every sign seemed to warn in earnest, hati-hati! Caution!  Dilarang masuk! Do not enter!

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And yet my first reaction upon climbing aboard was surprise at how nicely the bus was furnished.  Individual reclining seats?  No discarded water bottles littering the aisles?  Big, clear windows?  Smoking area confined to a closed-off room in the back?  Where’s the adventure I was promised, the traffic-dodging, kretek-smoking driver and the high-octane thrills?

So in uncomfortable luxury my journey began.  Crawling through the clogged arteries of Jakarta’s endless gridlock, Indonesia’s ubiquitous motorbikes might be able to weave through traffic, but hardly a bus.  Slowly, though, the scenery melted from glass-and-steel megalopolis to terra-cotta-and-scrap-metal slumburbs, then gradually dissolved into an endless sea of ricefields.

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By the time we arrived in Denpasar (10 hours behind schedule — Indonesians often run on jam karet, rubber clocks), I had:

*received an arm, leg, and scalp massage from my seatmate Benni, a south-Sumatran high school counselor eager to practice his bahasa Inggris (he also gave me a hand-written, signed copy of a poem he had written:

Aku tak bisa bicara tentang bulan sayu di tengan malam

ataupun bicara tentang plangi di musim bunga.

Tuhan, seandainya aku dapat bicara di matahari terik,

aku bicara damaikanlah dunia

ini untuk ku dan semua alam.

… and an invitation to stay at his house in Bali’s Jembrana district.  I politely declined, although such friendliness, apparently “creepy” by American standards, is totally normal among Indonesians, especially towards bule [white folk]).

*completed a crash-course in bis malam driver’s etiquette.  Honk at least once, but probably more if necessary or proper,

  • when about to pass, as a friendly warning
  • while passing, as a friendly reminder
  • after having passed, as a thank you (or, more likely, as a signal to get the hell out of the way so we can get back into our lane)
  • at vehicles moving too slowly
  • at vehicles moving too quickly
  • at vehicles passing us
  • at cyclists, often coming the wrong way down the middle of the lane at a leisurely pace
  • at animals in the street (cats, dogs, chickens, goats, small children)
  • while passing, at smaller oncoming vehicles, to warn them we’re not backing down
  • while passing, at larger oncoming vehicles, to notify them we’re backing down (this happened, I believe, only once)

*and made friends with Arham, a young composer who “want[s] to be Chopin.”  Tonight (and yesterday and tomorrow) he’s performing a piece at the Lotus Cafe in central Ubud.   “It starts at 8pm but i think you should come at 7 to make sure you get the best seat…”

So until then, I’ll be glued to my trusty-rusty laptop (with its CD-ROM drive making disgruntled grinding noises and threatening to fall loose for a third time; with its pathetic wireless card, thanks to which file uploads can take multiple days; with its newly-installed Windows XP, purchased at a pirated-software stall in a Jakarta mall five years ago and threatening to crash in 30, 29, 28 days if I don’t “authenticate”; with its missing “N” key, leaving only a stubby rubber stump between B and M), posting photos.

You know the drill…

bis malam

June 23, 2009

A letter to the editor of the Jakarta Post:

Experience with Lorena bus
The Jakarta Post,  Jakarta   |  Sat, 01/05/2002 7:07 AM  |  Opinion

Because flights to Bali were full, my husband and I foolishly decided to take a bus to Denpasar. We contacted a travel agency and asked for a super executive service and purchased two Lorena super executive seats — bus number SE VII, at the cost of Rp 350,000 each.

The Lorena bus was an executive and expensive disaster. As soon as the driver hit the toll road he lit up a clove cigarette, began puffing furiously and with his free hand weaved maniacally though traffic. Not content in endangering the lives of the passengers on the toll road, the lunatic driver, on exiting the toll, played chicken with oncoming buses and trucks, swerving to the wrong side of the road.

We were but two hours out of Jakarta with another twenty hours of this madness ahead of us. My husband ordered this maniac to stop and between Cirebon and whoop whoop we both stepped off.

On top of the bus fare another Rp 150,000 to return to Jakarta was lost and of course our holiday to Bali is in ruins. We guarantee to you Lorena that we will never use your service again.



… and subsequent response:

mau ke mana?

June 22, 2009

… is an Indonesian greeting that literally says, “Want to where?” or, idiomatically, “Where are you going?” It functions like “How are you?” in English:  a colloquial salutation that does not necessarily indicate any interest in where you are going or how you are doing. The similarly polite, indifferent response is usually “Tidak ke mana-mana” — nowhere in particular.

Titania, the chipper young Features Editor at the Jakarta Globe, walked me out of the Globe’s offices and onto the parking deck on the 9th floor of Plaza Semanggi.  “So, do you know your way around the city?”  (Incidentally, Titania has the subtlest, most effortless American accent of any Indonesian I have ever met, including those who’ve spent more than half their lives in the States.  Something about growing up with a language composed of five rich but simple vowels and only a couple of diphthongs renders Indonesians incapable of shedding their telltale archipelagic accents.  “Johnson?” is usually the bewildered response I get when I introduce myself; Indonesian has no “th” sound.  “Ohh,” they’ll say, embarrassed after several failed attempts.  “Jo-na-tan.”)

I shook my head somewhat defensively.  No, I don’t know my way around Jakarta.  Does anyone?  It is one of the most anarchic cities in the world, a cautionary tale for bright young urban planners.  Borders sprawl so chaotically and fade so gradually from skyscraperscape to rice paddy that estimates of the metropolitan area’s population can range from 12 to 18 million, depending on whom you choose to count.  Fiercely-guarded postmodern manses and rusty, pathetic hovels are separated by only a few yards of concrete and shards of glass.  The whole city is like one gigantic, overcrowded bazaar — every street corner that doesn’t have a huge, ultramodern shopping mall or a trendy “fusion” restaurant is home to someone selling fresh diced mango, clove cigarettes, celebrity gossip magazines, soda-in-a-plastic-bag-with-a-bendy-straw (save the glass bottles for a deposit!).  As Davy Linggar, painter and photographer, quipped to the Jakarta Globe, “You can survive on Rp 10 billion or Rp 1000.”  (US$1 million or $0.10.  The quote comes from a series of mini-interviews to commemorate Jakarta’s 482nd anniversary last Sunday.  If 482 seems like a strange number, consider that most Jakartans need any excuse they can get to celebrate.)

So no, Titania.  I’m sorry to admit that I don’t know my way around Jakarta, and probably never will.  But maybe this time will be a little bit different.  This time, my first time back after three years, my first time without my parents or my brothers, my first time since leaving home for college, my first time having anything to do besides visit relatives I didn’t know existed and complain about being away from friends, my longest visit ever (eight weeks!).  I’ve been brushing up on my Bahasa and doing all my homework, all my background reading, all my research.  I know I’ll never know the city, but after a brief stint here I hope to develop a vague, cursory notion of what makes it tick, whirr, rumble, buzz, hum, whine, and roar.  It’s 4:49 a.m. — or as I have come to call it, blog o’clock.  My jet-lag is epic and the oceanic orchestra of traffic never, ever stops.  Jakarta, I don’t know you, I can’t recognize your faces or navigate your streets or read your vital signs, I’m struggling to stay afloat but the ocean is vast and the rivers are trashed and the rainy season is coming, the monsoons are coming, I’m barely treading water, I can scarcely breathe, I can scarcely even see you through the smog.

(“Yeah, neither do I,” she said with a smile.  “So what better way to get to know the city than to work at a newspaper?”)

but first: a colonial detour

June 21, 2009
sky. high.

Europe was quite literally the last place I expected to be when I woke up this morning.  (Is it still “this” morning?  After 105 garbled hours  of drug-induced debauchery, my circadian rhythms skip and stutter like a syncopated gamelan interlock with no apparent downbeat or tonal center.  And crossing twelve timezones in a day doesn’t help.)  But Northwest 19 to Singapore-via-Tokyo was overbooked, so instead I flew east:  Singapore-via-Amsterdam.

lots of cheese, da?

About a decade had passed since the only other time I’d been to the Netherlands, on a family vacation for four or five days.  All I remember from that visit is seeing Anne Frank’s house and a handful of archetypical windmills, watching “Cow and Chicken” dubbed into Dutch on my cousin’s TV, playing Godzilla in Madurodam, and being very upset about leaving a prized Lego set under my seat when we got off the hovercraft.  This time I was on my own for about eight hours, and armed with only those scant memories, a camera, and a sense of adventure.

the only girl i've ever loved
the only girl i’ve ever loved

Fortunately, the train from Schiphol to Amsterdam Centraal takes only 15 minutes and 2 euro each way.  After the airport’s ATM hungrily devoured my American debit card, I counted in my trusty red traveller’s wallet a grand total of US$25 — not counting Singapore $4.70 (US$3.23), Rp. 100,000 (US$9.70), and a $750 voucher from Northwest (priceless).

“I’m sorry about your bank card,” said the fair-haired man at the currency exchange.  “But there’s a five-euro minimum commission.”  Not sorry enough.  So with a paltry €13 jingling in my pocket, I made my way to the platform.

was born with roses in her eyes
was born with roses in her eyes

Round-trip ticket, Schiphol International Airport – Amsterdam Centraal:  €4

Pocket Street Map of Amsterdam:  €2,97

1.5 gram “Pablow Picasso” award-winning cannabis:  €5

The remaining €1,03 found its way into an upturned hat, behind which was playing a somber-looking accordionist.

In the 142 years between Portuguese colonization and Japanese occupation, the Dutch (or technically the Dutch East India Company, at least at first) held many of the islands that are now part of the Republic of Indonesia.  The Netherlands formally recognized Indonesia’s independence in 1949, five years after Indonesian nationalists declared it.  Today, Nederlandsche influence permeates Indonesian society, albeit in slightly less-sinister post-colonial guises:  Dutch brands of snacks and biscuits in department store aisles and street vendors’ carts, remnants of a railway system and the archipelago’s first public schools, and a smattering of vocabulary.  Some of my favorites are wortel (carrot), rokok (cigarette), and dongkrak (car jack).

More pictures and links…