mau ke mana?

… 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?”)

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