Indolaporan Dua: Bandung di mana?

I’d been planning to visit Bandung for quite a while now, but never seemed to have an opportunity — until, on this trip, opportunity presented itself in the way of a training session being held there. With only two days midweek, most of them spent at work, it would be a short visit, but who was I to complain?

The trip didn’t start particularly well: after some confusion with the driver who showed up, who was evidently expecting an entirely different job, our project manager (fresh off the plane from Singapore) and I bundled into the car and hit the road. On the way out, the driver asked the garage security guard for directions towards the tollway, and headed out from the hotel, lazily looping first west and then north up Jl. Satrio. Not having been to Bandung before, I initially figured he was heading for some tollpike stretching east from Jak, but as he steadily drove north with occasional stops for directions from entirely random people (eg. beggar women living under a bridge), it slows dawned on us that he had absolutely no clue. I wasn’t much better equipped, and the boss’s nifty in-phone GPS map conveniently omitted Jakarta, but I did know that heading west to Slipi would take us to the highway, so that’s where we steered him. Not much later, I realized that he couldn’t read either, so we had to yell out “left!” or “right!” at each intersection… but we finally got onto the highway and, a little over an hour later, passed by the hotel we started from. Grumble.

By now it was pitch dark outside, so there wasn’t much in the way of the promised hilly scenery. The highway, though, made up for it in part. For a developing country, the roads on Java are really pretty extraordinary: the initial stretch of turnpike down from Jakarta towards Bandung is four-laned in both directions, and the newest bit, while “only” two-laned, swooped gracefully up and around the foothills as we climbed our way onto the plains. We stopped halfway through at the self-proclaimed Best Rest Area in Indonesia to stock up on chips and a worrisomely named bag of “Oops! Fugu” snacks (do they kill you if you peel them wrong?), and then hit the road again.

Another miniadventure awaited on arrival in Bandung, where I had to play charades until the driver understood that my incomprehensible request for an aye-tee-em meant that I wanted an ah-teh-em. Next, the driver wanted to know which bank’s ATM I wanted, because surely I could use only the right one? Both my meager Indonesian and charades skills failed at explaining the concept of “any ATM”, so I said BCA (Indonesia’s largest bank), and we then drove around in circles (and past not a few other ATMs) until he found one.

Two million rupiah richer, we finally pulled into our digs for the night, the Savoy Homann, which has a respectable claim to being Bandung’s grand old hotel: their website proudly boasts of eminent guests like Charlie Chaplin and Yasser Arafat. On check-in, the bossman asked if there was Internet in the room, and were told no. We protested, they checked again, and said no again. We protested louder yet, one guy scurried into the back room, and a smiling manager came to greet us. Only one available room had Net access, he said, so how about a complimentary upgrade to the Presidential Suite? Well, yes, we could live with that.

We were led to our room via an elevator apparently dating from Chaplin’s days, but the suite itself was rather more modern. As promised, it was a two-bedroom affair, with my “little” bedroom being the size of your average hotel room, while the “master” bedroom was equipped with a bed and a jacuzzi large enough to accommodate all four wives of a local potentate, and the two were connected with a corridor/living room that stretched a good 25 meters.

The next day’s training was finished by 4 PM and we set out to explore. In pre-colonial days, Bandung was the home of the local sultan, whose alun-alun (ceremonial grouds) and pendopo (pavilion) are still at the center of the city. In its Dutch colonial days, Parijs van Java was known for its art-deco architecture, a few examples of which can still be found in, for example, our hotel and the Gedung Merdeka building opposite. But today, Bandung is best known for one thing: factory outlet shopping. Much of Indonesia’s massive textile industry is concentrated nearby, and lot overflows and quality control rejects all end up on the shelves in Bandung, and with a large population of students there’s a thriving local designer scene as well, mostly aimed at the young and the hip. Just behind the alun-alun are streets crammed full of clothing shops, clothing shops and more clothing shops.

And, like any other self-respecting Indonesian city, Bandung has its own array of local specialities. Top of the charts is batagor, which combines the three lodestones of Indonesian cuisine, peanuts, chilli and tofu, in a mildly novel way: the tofu (or fish paste) is battered and deepfried, then drizzled with generous lashings of peanut sauce, hot chilli oil and kecap (yes, ketchup, but the original Indonesian version is black, thin and sweet). I also managed to try out soto bandung, a basic but tasty beef broth with chunks of radish; laksa bandung, unrecognizably distant from its Malay/Peranakan counterparts with just a hint of coconut milk in chickeny soup; and, last and least, mie kocok, which turned out to be instant noodles served with translucent cubes of something gelatinous, fatty and not particularly tasty, revealed on later googling to be cow skin. Mmm.  Fortunately, I finished off with something rather more tasty — Bandung’s modern-day speciality, the alliterative Bandung brownie, sold even by streetside stalls.   I’m not sure what’s so Bandung-y about it, but if you slather a brownie with enough chocolate, you can’t go too far wrong.

The return journey in the late afternoon was rather more scenic, with countless terraced rice paddies reminescent of Bali. I took a shared minibus service back to Jakarta, but the highway paralleled the train line for much of the way, the Dutch-built railway punching its way through the hills with tunnels and gliding across valleys on narrow steel viaducts. Next time, I’ll take the train.

Indolaporan Satu: Selamat di Jakarta

Back in the warm, humid, clove-scented embrace of the Daerah Khusus Ibukota (Region Special Mothercity), Jakarta. The first time I came here back in 2003, I thought it was a terrible hellhole, but after sticking around for the better part of a year in 2005-2006 I’ve ferreted out enough of its well-hidden charms and learned to avoid most of its pitfalls well enough that I was actually somewhat looking forward to this job, which will see me spend most of Nov-Dec in Indonesia.

Not that much has changed while I was away, although they’ve completed a few new shopping malls and a lot more busway lines. Pac-Man no longer runs above the desks of Imigrasi at the airport, alas, as they’ve finally replaced the LCD scrollers with flat-panel TVs, but the bloated bureaucracy of arrival processing hasn’t changed at all — the on-arrival visas of a 777-load of foreigners were being processed by one (1) Imigrasi guy, with four (4) police officers quite literally standing behind his shoulder in the booth. Next to him, a handy sign informed that certain ranges of US$100 bills would not be accepted for visa payments until, and I quote, “we have notifiaction from our head”, which I think just encapsulates the experience perfectly: one single word, and they’ve managed to squeeze “notification”, “fiction” and “biatch” in there.

The ride from the airport is a bit more pleasant now that most of the boxy old Nissan Cedrics used by hotel taxi monopolist Silver Bird have now been replaced with plush pitch black Mercedeses. Oddly, though, the price hasn’t gone up at all, so the Gini coefficient strikes you harder than ever when slums and beggars glide past your tinted window as you recline on a leather seat that smells of money and ponder whether to tip your driver 5 or 10 cents for your $3 ride.

Getting used to Indonesian money again is taking a while. At 9400 rupiah to the US dollar, the rupiah being one of the few currencies that has managed to depreciate faster than the greenback, it takes tens of thousands to buy lunch and millions for a hotel room. (I still remember my surprise the first time I went to an Indonesian ATM and was informed that my remaining account balance was north of 100 billion, and even now I feel like a snob when I ask the foreign exchange counter at the airport for a million rupes — just over $100, that is.) I picked up a prepaid SIM card and figured that the Rp.12000 preloaded onto it ought to last a while, but a few international SMS later that was down to half and I realized that I had started off with the grand total of $1.25.

A short break always helps you spot new things even in places you thought you knew well. I’ve always associated the smell of Jakarta with the funky mix of low-octane exhaust, burning garbage and sewage outside, but this time, I realized that for us white-collar guys, the real smell of the Jakarta is aerosol air purifier. Every single elevator and meeting room in the city appears to have a little box mounted on the wall, practically always the same model made by Initial, whose job is to squirt a dash of scent every few minutes. It’s a fairly audible squirt too, seemingly always perfectly timed to punctuate awkward silences in conversation, like little sweet-smelling farts.

Another of Jakarta’s many little weirdnesses is how many women (and the occasional guy) are coiffed out with elaborate hairstyles that, in the rest of the world, went out of style in the 1920s: one of the lounge ladies at the hotel has a bob of such surreally symmetric perfection that a friend of mine suspects it’s a wig. With service industry wages averaging around US$60 a month, department stores are so terminally overstaffed that any customer (particularly a two-meter blonde alien) draws a crowd of half a dozen curious, perfectly made up and more often than not stunningly attractive saleswomen staring at every move you make.  Not that I’d usually complain, mind you, but it’s a little distracting if you’re in the market for a new pair of underwear.

On the second day back at work, one of the client’s guys came up and told me there was a fire drill. There was no alarm, I protested, but I’d forgotten this was Indonesia — he’d been tipped off by the security guys that there would be a fire drill. So we moseyed down with our laptops and were already outside in a good position to watch the show by the time the bells started ringing, a window on the 8th floor opened, and and an orange smoke flare was set off. On the balcony of the neighboring building, somebody tried to aim a jet of water at it, only to discover that streams of water aren’t very good at going around corners. A few minutes later, a fire truck showed up, raised up its crane and to loud cheers started spraying towards the smoke — only problem was, the water pressure wasn’t even close to enough to reach it. After another ten minutes of fiddling, they managed to up the pressure and finally hit the smoke, and rescue squad commandos started rappeling down from the 23rd floor, hoisting down either brave volunteers or customers who hadn’t paid the bills. The final cherry on the cake was extinguisher practice, with office ladies in tudung veils charging at flaming barrels of oil. All in a day’s work…  but I’ll keep a closer eye on the emergency exit routes in Indonesian buildings from now on.