The waitress just poured a tantalizingly cold Bintang beer. Tuesday night at the Cemara (pronounced “Chemara”) hotel in Jakarta. The taxi (“taksi” in bahasa Indonesia) ride from the airport took longer than the 500-km plane ride from Jogyakarta to Jakarta. But that’s Jakarta for you: there’s either a lot of traffic, or an insane amount of traffic. And a word of advice to the passenger in seat 15E next to me: next time, try not to incessantly pick your nose when sitting next to someone on the plane and firing off the boogers on the ground. It is simply gross, man.
The Cemara is a bit like coming home. I’ve stayed here a number of times over the years, but have not been here in a couple of years. Things have changed. They finally got rid of the horrid yellow-brown couch in the lobby and replaced it with modern furniture. Same goes for the dining room I’m in now, it’s a lot snazzier than before. New, large speakers are playing jazz music. I have to admit that’s one change I could do without: while I like jazz, there was a certain charm to the way things were before: there was only one CD of muzak they played over and over again. I miss listening to the Commodores, Barry Manilow and Frank Sinatra. At least they have not replaced the ultra-funky toilet paper dispenser/telephone/radio in the bathroom. That’s the coolest useless thing I’ve seen in a while.
They finally have Wifi at the hotel, but it costs an alarming ten dollars a day, and I refuse to pay that amount. So after lugging my bags upstairs, I went to Jalan Jaksa, a backpacker haven, roach- and rodent-infested cesspool of questionable restaurants, internet cafes with unreliable access, and lots of people just sitting around. I was disappointed to see that the grungy shops on the corner had been wiped out and in their place was a monstrous construction of what will be a shopping mall. Dozens of small businesses have been displaced and it took me a while to get my bearings. Walking down the street I came across the War-Net I usually frequent and to my joy I found the same dude who’s been manning the place for years. After a brief exchange, I had to find another place to surf the web because it was full.
The walk to the nearest internet cafe reminded me of the particular situations I encounter when traveling alone. Three prostitutes offered me oral sex, two street children followed me from behind after I stopped at an ATM machine, and – this is my favourite – a young man followed me by walking in front of me. I slow down, so does he. I stop, he pays rapt attention to garbage on the ground. I move to the left, he turns his head to see where I’m going and moves to the left. Harmless and amusing.
The second waitress came and did a horrible job of pouring my next beer, now half head and half beer. I was hungrier than I thought, devouring my tempe and tahu, bean curd and tofu.
I work in human rights, and whenever I’m surrounded by the strangeness of a different country, I can’t help but see examples of human dignity being sidelined for any number of reasons. Take the new shopping mall on Jalan Jaksa as an example. I’d be curious to see what form of compensation the developers offered those who’d been living there and operating businesses at that corner for years. I have a feeling the previous land owners were not adequately consulted in the process; perhaps they were simply given an offer they were encouraged to accept.
Another example: the whores offering me oral sex. By the time the third prostitute offered me some, I couldn’t help but laugh. I know I shouldn’t have, but I did. I can’t imagine how arduous my life would have to be in order to ask a complete stranger for such a thing. Who knows what their stories are: an abused childhood, being left at home while her brothers went to school, terrible economic conditions forcing her into this profession in order to feed her family…with every face, there’s a different story worth telling. (The Wisdom of Whores is worth reading if you have the chance.)
And finally the street children. One look at both boys who followed me and my heart sank as I thought of my own two sons, probably the same age as these kids. My children go to bed every night with a story, brushed teeth, and a healthy dose of hugs and I love yous. The kids following me spend their evenings walking garbage-infested sidewalks harassing passers-by. And who knows where they’ll sleep tonight.
Jakarta is bustling; the city throbs. Now almost midnight, there is still a constant ebb and flow of cars, motorcycles and mopeds on the streets to my left. And among the 15 or so million people calling this place home, there are countless among them who live lives that are a constant struggle, lives where human dignity remains – probably until they die – an elusive and unobtainable, and ultimately meaningless, concept.
Almost a day has passed since the last paragraph, and I’m sitting at the airport in Hong Kong (thanks HK, your internet is free here). The difference with Jalan Jaksa could not be more striking: Louis Vutton, dunhill, iPods, luxury brands of everything you can think of, and a Burger King to boot. I’ve been up since 4 this morning, traveled next to someone who hacked a nasty cough for four and a half hours and had no sense of personal space, waited in line for an hour at the Air Canada transfer desk only to be served by morons, and now I’m getting ready for a 13-hour ride over the Pacific. Whoever thought air travel was glamorous, think again. All right, plane’s boarding.