Jakarta by rail: MRT opening week

After a 13-year absence, I had the chance to visit the Indonesian capital Jakarta again, and as luck would have it I landed on the 2nd operating day of the long-awaited Jakarta MRT. So of course I went to check it out: I rode the MRT from end to end at Bundaran HI to Lebak Bulus, covering 15.7 km in 30 min, then backtracked to my office in the Sudirman CBD business district near Istora station.

Underground stations: Bundaran HI and Istora

The MRT’s 6 underground stations all look pretty much identical. 4 sloped, not terribly distinctive entrances from the ground, ticketing concourse underground, another escalator down to an island platform with trains running on the right side (although Indonesia drives on the left). Decoration is sparse to non-existent, with grey walls, a few orange highlights and occasional signage in the MRT’s distinctive shade of dark blue.

Since this was the first week of operation, tickets were not on sale yet and in fact the ticketing offices looked very unready to start operating next Monday, not least because fares were only decided this week. Also, is a single ticket machine really going to be handle the load?

That said, while rides are free this week, it wasn’t quite a free for all either, as you were supposed to have a barcoded ticket you can get online. Fortunately, as a bule gila (crazy foreigner) I was waved through anyway and even handed a printed barcode by friendly staff. Indonesian hospitality for the win!

Elevated station: Lebak Bulus

The 7 stations at the south end are all elevated and once again cast from an identical mold repeating the same pattern: ground, ticketing concourse, escalators up to side platforms. The design is sparse but elegant, with large white sails providing shelter while allowing breezes and half-height platform doors stopping passengers from falling onto the tracks.

Southern terminal Lebak Bulus is next to a depot of the same name, guarded by one of the countless mosques that dot the city.


The MRT uses modern rolling stock built by Japanese manufacturer Nippon Sharyo. The insides of the 6-car trainsets are spacious and built to handle crowds. Announcements are made in Indonesian and English at every station, with the station names jarringly read by a different voice from the rest and repeated to boot: “Stasiun berakhir <pause> LEBAK BULUS GRAB. LEBAK BULUS GRAB.” These announcements also include the stations’ commercial sponsors. Electronic signage is limited to small displays above the doors, which use illegibly small fonts to boot — a general theme for the system. Regular visitors to Japan will recognize the door opening and chimes, which are identical to those used in Tokyo.


Given that this is a brand new system built by the Japanese, who are generally masters of this stuff, signage in the system is really quite astonishingly bad. Not only is there very little of it, but font sizes are tiny, meaning you really need to squint, particularly for the line strip maps (top right) that are drawn in thin white on reflective black. The system also lacks a strong logo, with the “MJ” squiggle above used on occasion, but there’s nothing to distinguish MRT station entrances from random underpasses unless you’re close enough to read the signs.

Station maps are not much better: the ones on the platform show exit letters, but give no clue about what’s nearby. Only at Istora station tucked away in a corner outside the paid area was I able to find a proper vicinity map.


From a technological point of view, the MRT is a marvel and the first modern and efficient mode of public transport this megacity, soon set to be the world’s biggest, has ever seen.

My biggest surprise with the MRT, though, was its lack of popularity: the trains were rattlingly empty at 8-9 AM, which should be peak hour, and many of my fellow passengers were clearly tourists like me. Doubtless newness and the complicated free-but-book-in-advance ticket system are tamping down demand, but the limited route may also be somewhat to blame. The Bundaran HI to Blok M stretch of the route runs along Jakarta’s main drag Jalan Sudirman and parallels a highly successful Transjakarta busway line, so you’d expect this to be popular, but the final stretch to Lebak Bulus doesn’t really connect to anywhere: I suspect this was mostly chosen because there was free space for the depot.

Poor integration to other transport is also a major issue. The north end of the line has two sensible interchanges, one to the busway at Bundaran Hi and one at Dukuh Atas to the commuter rail network at Sudirman, but the south end has nothing. Work on a northern extension towards Kota and the old city officially started only last weekend with a target of 2024, while a east-west line remains on the drawing board and no southern extensions are even planned. The Jakarta LRT still has not opened and will not be anywhere near the MRT when it does, although there are vague plans for extensions. The only real hope is the 43 km Jabodebek (Greater Jakarta) LRT, which will connect a swathe of southeastern Jakarta to the MRT at Dukuh Atas. It’s around half complete as I type and might be open around 2021 if all goes well, although it’s already two years late.

On a more local level, Jakarta remains an extraordinarily pedestrian-hostile city and there appear to be precisely zero direct entrances from the MRT into the countless shopping malls and office buildings along the route — again a great contrast to Japan, where this is done as a matter of course.

All that said, it’s a good start, and at least it’s built and open — which is more than can be said for the twice-cancelled Jakarta Monorail. Here’s hoping it will take less than 13 years for the next line to come along.


Wahhabalinese Adventures 1: Bali

Ah, Bali. I’ve spent a lot of time working and traveling around in Indonesia, and the Island of the Gods is the one place I always seem to end up returning to. In fact, for this trip Plan A was go to Phuket, but there was no availability or remotely reasonable pricing at the JW Marriott. Plan B was the Marriott Hua Hin, but while the hotel was OK, getting there from Singapore is kinda painful. So we ended up with Plan C: award tickets on SQ and a dirt-cheap reservation (US$53/night, with breakfast for two!) at a great little place I’d stayed at twice before, Tony’s Villa.

Alas, this time returning to paradise was a bit disappointing. Kerobokan, long a bizarre mix of rural Bali (paddy fields and cows) with overflow from neighboring Seminyak (superhip bars, trendy shops, fancy restaurants) was booming, with half the establishments on the road to the beach new since my last visit less than two years ago and multi-story buildings noisily going up on both sides of once blissfully quiet Tony’s. Even Tony’s itself was looking a little worse for the wear, with no less than half a dozen cockroaches skittering about outdoor shower-bath area on the night we arrived. To their credit, the staff seemed genuinely concerned, and after a thorough extermination operation on the first night they didn’t come back. Presumably the villa hadn’t been used for a while, and the critters had found a nice place for a nest in the drains.

Fortunately it was pretty much uphill from there. We’d arrived during the Balinese festival of Galungan, so teetering penjor straw poles decked all the streets and temples like a Balinese Christmas. Hu’u, Ku de Ta and the usual cast of Petitenget Beach hotspots were rocking, and Z’s birthday dinner at Kafe Warisan was just stupendously good, way exceeding our expectations. Full review:

Both of us had already “done” the usual tourist spots, so we limited sightseeing to a visit to Tanah Lot: I’d been there before, but with a flat battery in my camera, so I wasn’t averse to a second trip. This time, too, it was a bit of a disappointment: Tanah Lot is ”really” commercialized, with a vast maze of souvenir hawkers to navigate before you can even get in, high entry fees, hordes of tour groups clambering on rocks in the temple grounds in miniskirts, etc. And to top it off, after two days of clear blue skies, the sky was now dark and predicting imminent rain, with coupled with the sun behind the famous island temple made photography pretty much impossible. Sigh.

Will I come back to Bali? Oh yes. But next time, it’ll be time to wave goodbye to the Seminyak scene and take at least a week off to go around the island.

Next flight: SQ 943 DPS-SIN C B777-200 seat 15D

Jakarrrta: Vierailulla Isossa Durianissa

Vietin 2005-2007 yli vuoden työmatkoilla Jakartassa. Seuraava tarina on pohjimmiltaan totuudenmukainen (nimiä on vaihdettu, paikkoja tai tapahtumia ei) joskin tiivistetty tarina tyypillisestä loppupuolen keikasta Kaakkois-Aasian vähiten tunnetussa suurkaupungissa.

“Welcome to Jakarrrrrrta”, hehkuttaa singaporelaisen lentoyhtiön nukenkasvoiseksi meikattu ja kehoa hyväilevään kebayaan valettu lentoemo.  Koneen ovella ilma iskee kasvoihin kuin märkä rätti: kuumaa kosteutta, neilikkatupakkaa, palavia riisipeltoja, avoviemäreitä.  Harpon kireäkasvoisten salkkumiesten kanssa kohti Imigrasin tiskejä, sillä ehtimällä perille ennen muita voi leikata odotusajastaan tunnin ellei kaksikin.  Passintarkastajien yllä lediskrolleri välkyttää “DEMO” ja juoksuttaa Pacmania kummitusten perässä tai toistepäin.  Tympääntynyt tullimies likaisten hampaiden värisessä paidassaan löytää passistani vuoden business-viisumin (400 plus lahjukset) ja päättelee pettyneenä, ettei kannata ryhtyä hankalaksi.  Vieressä istuva viiksivallu taasen hymyilee leveästi kiinalaiselle, joka erehtyi ruksaamaan väärän boksin hakemuksessaan, ja selittää etteihän ASEAN-viisumivapaus suinkaan koske liikematkoja.  Mr. Tan huokaisee ja kaivaa lompakkoa kuvestaan, itse saan leiman passiini ja pusken tieni taksihäslääjien ja Rolex-kauppiaiden ryppään läpi terminaalista ulos.

“Welcome to Indonesia.  Enjoy it with No Drugs!”, ehdottaa plakaatti taksijonon edessä.  Nousen Silver Birdin limusiiniin — pikimustaksi tummennetuilla ikkunoilla varustettu vanha Nissan Cedric — ja kurvaan kohti kaupunkia.  On jo ilta ja halpojen natrium-katuvalojen oranssi hohde peilautuu rosoisen asvaltin lätäköistä.  Matkan puolivälissä Ciputran ostos- ja asuinkeskus nousee näkyviin, vihreällä neon-piikillä ja Pizza Hutilla varustettu betonilinnake keskellä loputonta tiilikattoisten kampong-slummien merta.

Lähellä hotellia kuski kääntyy pois kuusikaistaiselta moottoritieltä ja jää odottamaan valoihin sillan alla.  Päivällä sen kupeeseen maalattu muraali julistaa “AKU CINTA KOTA JAKARTA” (Rakastan Jakartaa) ja katukojut kokkaavat nasi gorengia kerosiiniliesillä, mutta öisin takaa paljastuvat kodittomien pahvihökkelit ja spiidihuorat kauppaavat kahden euron pillua, sukupuolitaudit ja puukko kylkiluiden väliin kaupan päälle.  Bongatessaan limon ryhmä katulapsia rynnää pesusienen kanssa jynssäämään ikkunoita.  Yksi nappisilmä liimaa räkäisen nenänsä ikkunaan kiinni, huomaa valkonaaman takapenkillä ja vaatii hämmentävän hyvällä englannilla: “Hello Mister Scorpion, give me one hundred dollar.”  Hyvästä yrityksestä huolimatta kuskini Helmi arvioi palveluksen hinnan realistisemmin ja sujauttaa ikkunanraosta pesijänulikalle alumiinisen viidensadan rupian kolikon (vajaa 0,05).  Lapsi kopauttaa sillä ilmeettömästi päätään ja jatkaa kohti seuraavaa uhriaan.

Kultaisen kolmion pilvenpiirtäjät ja neonvalot — Chase, Blowfish, Panin Bank, Sampoerna, Ritz-Carlton, Toyota, Jamsostek — kajastavat kuulaana ja siistit palmurivit vartioivat Mega Kuninganin finanssikeskuksen autioita katuja.  Marriottin portilla nelihenkinen aseistettu kommandojoukko tutkii auton räjähdehaistelijalla konepeltiä ja hansikaslokeroa myöten, sillä autopommi samaisen hotellin pihassa vuonna 2003 tappoi 12 ja moni henkilökunnasta piilottelee edelleen vammojaan ihonväristen hanskojen alla.  Portsari tervehtii nimeltä ja kantaa laukkuni huoneeseen, lyöttäydyn aulassa intialaisen insinööri-playboy Rajeshin ja korealaisen muovipuristamon suurisilmäisen toimistosihteeri Kikin seuraan ja suuntaamme Jakartan yöhön.

Illan ensimmäinen etappi on pienimuotoinen roomalainen palatsi kulman takana.  Umpipimeän talon autotallista ilmestyy taskulampun valokeila ja sen takana Rita, joka kapuaa autoon ja ensi töikseen sokaisee autossa istujat.  Huolellisen meikin ympäröimät siniset piilolinssit, raidoittain ruskeaksi värjätty tukka, löysästä topista pilkottavat pienet silikonit, gasellin jalat ja hillitty mutta erittäin kallis käsilaukku vihjaavat heti, että Rita on rikkaan perheen lapsi, joka bailaa työkseen.  Tähän asti iloisesti jutellut Kiki hiljenee ja mulkoilee kateellisena.

Rita opastaa kuskin juuri avattuun ravintolaan keskellä Mentengin omakotitaloaluetta, jossa Indonesian monikymmenvuotinen päämies Suhartokin nykyään viettää dementoituneita kotiarestieläkepäiviään.  Lara Djongrang osoittautuu vanhaksi siirtomaa-aikaiseksi taloksi, jonka sisälle on roudattu puolet vanhasta hindutemppelistä, kärsätöntä Ganesh-elefanttijumalaa ja 300 vuotta vanhaa kattoa myöten.  Asiakkaita ei ole juuri yhtään, mutta loosissa meitä odottaa kaksi pulloa Absolut-vodkaa, mansikkaminttutupakkatäytteinen vesipiippu sekä Hupu, Tupu ja Lupu.  Puolijemeniläinen suupaltti Hupu näyttää hupparissa ja pääkallolippiksessään ylensyövältä wannabe-gangsterilta, kun taas ihraisen pyramidin muotoinen Tupu säästää energiansa lasin kallisteluun.  Langanlaiha arpinaama Lupu siemailee konjakkia hiljaa ja käärii marihuanasätkän, mutta keskustelun aihepiirin kääntyessä Hupun Ferrarista Jakartan menomestoihin alkaa innostua.  Hupu vannottaa, että legendaariseen kuusikerroksiseen Stadiumiin ei “never never, never never” saa mennä ja nappaa jointin Lupulta.  Hän laittaa sen suuhunsa väärinpäin, imaisee henkoset pilveä ja kipinöitä, ja puhaltaa imelän valkoisen savun Ritan vieressä odottavaan sieraimeen.  Levymikko soittaa Abbaa.

Toisenkin vodkapullon tyhjennyttyä ympärillä parveileva henkilökunta alkaa osoittaa hermostumisen merkkejä.  Hupu kuittaa laskun, hoipertelee pihalle ja vaatii ehdottomasti kunnian kyyditä meidät takaisin hotellille.  Rita katoaa poskisuudelman ja hajuvesituulahduksen kera, kiitämme veljenpoikia vuolaasti ja nappaamme ohimenevän taksin.  Paluumatkalla Rajesh kertoo, että Rita on 11-vuotiaan lapsen yh-äiti, joka suorittaa parhaillaan kolmatta yliopistotutkintoaan ja sekä Hupu että Tupu ovat päiväisin liituraitapukuisia lakimiehiä.  Hotellilla turvamiehet toivottavat iloisesti meille hyvää huomenta.  Pesen hampaani pullovedellä ja sukellan king-size sänkyni uumeniin.

Kuuden aikaan moskeija kutsuu uskovaiset rukoilemaan, aurinko nousee yhtä keltaisena kuin taivas ja sinihaalariset työmiehet tanssittavat punaista pölyä kaduilla.  Lappaan riisipuuroa kulhoon, kaadan päälle kanalientä, purjosilppua ja chilikastiketta, mussutan tyytyväisenä ja lähden töihin.  Liikenneruuhkat ovat jo alkaneet ja kolmen kilometrin matka hotellilta Itsenäisyyden aukiolle kestää tunnin.  Jockeyt seisovat kadun laidassa etusormi pystyssä, eurolla voi napata yhden kyytiin ja päästä siten laillisesti ydinkeskustan carpool-vyöhykkeelle.  Aikoinaan slummien keskelle raivatun neliökilometrin kokoisen kulahtaneen puiston keskellä sojottaa tanakkana itsenäisyyssankari-naistenmies-diktaattori Sukarnon viimeisenä erektiona tunnettu Kansallismonumentti, jonka huipulta ejakuloi 35 kilon purske puhdasta kultaa.

Jokaviikkoiseen palaveriin valuu hiljalleen jokaviikkoiset naamat paikalle.  Wayan, irstas balilainen hindu, joka imuroi lahjuksia ja imututtaa ne pois hierontalaitoksissa; Tommy, aina kaikesta kaikkien kanssa samaa mieltä oleva vaaleanpunainen eminenssi; Carlos, hermostuneesti hihittävä kiinalainen häslääjä; Romano, nahkatakkeja harrastava kristitty kaljasieppo Sulawesilta; Mandala, joka korjailee bugeja Oraclen tietokannoissa iltapuhteinaan; Megawati, nimensä mukaisesti topakka täti; ja Kanako, Borneon viidakoista paenneen kallonkutistaja-dayakin ja sodan jälkeen Indonesiaan jääneen japanilaisen sotilaan epätodennäköinen jälkikasvu, joka piirtelee manga-hahmoja kokousmuistiinpanojensa laidoille ja haaveilee taitelijaelämästä Sydneyssä.  Wayan ja Romano röhöttävät ja hakkaavat toisiaan selkään, Tommy hymyilee ja sukii pieniä viiksiään, Mandala tuijottaa läppärinsä ruutua, huulet raollaan mutta hampaat tiiviisti yhdessä.  Susilo Bambang Yudhoyonon ja Jusuf Kallan potretit mulkoilevat meitä seinältä, Indonesian garuda-kotkan jalkovälissä lukee “BHINNEKA TUNGGAL IKA” (Erilaisuudesta yhtenäisyys) ja tarjoilija turkoosinvihreässä univormussa tuo kupit pikimustaa makeaa jaavalaista kahvia.  Toteamme kaikki yhtämielisesti, että eihän tässä oikein mitään olla saatu aikaiseksi, mutta ensi viikolla kaikki hoidetaan ja aikataulu pitää siis edelleen.

Nuijan kopautus ja syömään.  Kanttiinissa tarjoillaan tänään jakartalaista erikoisuutta soto betawia eli kookoskeittoa, jossa uiskentelee suolenpätkiä, laikukasta lehmännahkaa ja joko mahalaukun tai juomukondomin paloja.  Lapioin lientä riisini päälle, ongin soppaan eksyneitä perunanpaloja ja Kanakon ihmetellessä ruokahalun puutetta selittelen, että tuli jo syötyä paljon aamiaisella.

Toimisto tyhjenee neljän jälkeen ja suuntaan Rajeshin kanssa Blok M:ään.  Jakartan pahamaineisin yöelämäkortteli näyttää illan hämärtäessä Patpongilta sisällissodan jälkeen, talokanta koostuu yksinomaan räjähtäneistä murjuista ja ikkunattomista hierontaluolista.  Joka kulmassa maleksii toimettoman näköisiä nuoria kloppeja ja heti autosta noustessamme yksi tulee vetelemään hihasta, kysellen toiveikkaasti “Pussy, pussy?”, mutta livahdamme pakoon oviaukosta sisään.  Kolmen aseistetun vartijan takaa paljastuu täydellinen pieni pala Tokiota, izakaya-baari Ajihara, jonka seinillä japaninkieliset lappuset mainostavat päivän erikoisia: grillattua valasta, paistettua katkeramelonia Okinawan tapaan, raakaa mustekalaa wasabilla.  Muut asiakkaat, salarymaneja ja firman puolesta toimitettuja kontrahti-karaoketyttöjä viimeistä myöten, katsovat meitä hetken ihmetellen mutta palaavat pian sake-pullojensa ääreen.  Tilaan sapuskat kimonopukeiselta tarjoilijalta sekoituksella indonesiaa ja japania, skoolaamme kylmillä Bintangeilla ja pureudumme annoksiimme samuraisaippuaoopperan raikuessa taustalla.

Ritalta saapuu tekstari ja matka jatkuu päivän vinkin opastamana Plaza Indonesiaan.  Kellarissa kuskit nuokkuvat koomaisena bemareiden pakokaasujen keskellä, yksi nurkassa sanomalehden päällä, toinen epämukavan näköisesti kyykyssä betonikaiteen päällä, kolmas SUV:n aukinaisessa takaluukussa.  Ostarin puolella kenraalien ja teollisuuspomojen vaimot yrittävät valita Louis Vuittonin laukkojen ja Pradan kenkien välillä, päätyen ostamaan kummatkin.  Käyn nostamassa automaatista miljoonan (vajaat 100 euroa).  Lävähtäneen Rubikin kuution näkoisen eX-keskuksen yhdessä kulmassa on mustalla ja violetilla kyllästetty F Bar ja siellä istuvat Kiki ja kolmekymppisenä eläkkeelle jäänyt kreikkalainen pörssimeklari/mafioso Dimitrios eli Dimi.  Seinän peittävä plasma-TV näyttää muotinäytöksiä Shanghaista, menu tarjoilee norjalaista lohta pestokuorrutuksella ja keskivertococktail on Suomen hinnoissa, eli samaa luokkaa kuin jaavalaisen maajussin viikon palkka, mutta ämpäri Coronaa lähtee sadalla tonnilla.  Torstai-iltanakin paikka kuhisee pintaliitäjiä ja naapuripöydässä tummahipiäinen neitonen korkokengissä, pikkutopissa ja minihameessa sivelee valkoisen isoisänsä kaljamahaa.  Baarimikot tuikkaavat bensaan kastetut rätit tyhjiin vodkapulloihin, sytyttävät ne tuleen ja alkavat jonglööraamaan.

Lavalle nousee kolme kurvikasta tanssijaa mustissa pikkuhousuissa, push-up liiveissä ja polvenkorkuisissa saappaissa.  Kiemurtelu teknojumputuksen tahtiin yltyy pian niin kiimaiseksi, että priimapaikalta tilannetta seuraavalla DJ:llä menee vaihdossa pasmat sekaisin.  Arsenaaliin lisätään shottilasi täynnä keltaisesta nestettä ja Dimitrios kiskotaan ylös lavalle ja polvilleen.  Yksi naisista asettaa drinkin runsaiden rintojensa väliin ja painaa povensa Dimin naamaan, toinen vetää kokenein ottein vyön irti Dimin housuista ja alkaa piiskaamaan sillä tahtia.  Dimi paneutuu puuhaansa asiaankuuluvalla asenteella ja ryystää, nuolee ja käpälöi minkä kerkiää.  Toimituksen jälkeen toppaus laajenee 50.000 rupialla ja bileet jatkuvat.  Lentoemon urasta haaveileva Kiki huokaa ja räpyttelee minulle silmiään: “Jakartassa on niin tylsää.  Pääsisipä joskus taas Singaporeen…”

Aamulla lähden takaisin lentokentälle.  Liikennevaloissa katusoittaja rämpyttää hajoamispisteessä olevan kitaraa ja laulaa haikeasti.  Ensi viikolla uudestaan.

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.