12 March 2010

A Day in the Big Durian

Last weekend, after over 7 months in Indonesia, I finally made it to the capital.  Hello, Jakarta.  The city lives up to its nickname -- "The Big Durian" -- by having a notorious reputation and being, as well as I can figure, something of an acquired taste.  In the words of the Lonely Planet: "At first glance, this hot, smoggy city, which sprawls for miles over a featureless plain, feels like nothing more than a waiting lounge for the millions queuing up to make their fortune.  Jakarta's infamous macet chokes its freeways, town planning is anathema and all attempts to forge a central focal point for the city have stuttered and ultimately failed.  The first -- or only -- thought on most travelers' minds is how quickly the city and its polluted streets can be left behind."  Come on, Lonely Planet, why don't you tell us what you really think.

As it turned out, though, Jakarta wasn't half bad.  The annual international Java Jazz Festival was happening that weekend, and my friend Megan was planning on going and staying with her friend Yuyun, who had picked her up a ticket.  When Megan asked if I wanted to come along it was obviously no question (jazz plus the hemisphere's worst traffic jams?  I'm totally in!), and Friday morning found us at the train station in Yogya, waiting to board the 8-hour train that would carry us across Central Java and right into the pulsing heart of the Big Durian itself.  The train ride, while long, was pretty comfortable, and the hundreds of kilometers of rice paddies and countless small villages we passed through were certainly a sight to see.  Definitely a different view from what I used to see through the window of the Amtrak train between New York City and Springfield, Massachusetts -- there's just not a whole lot of beautiful mosques by the side of the road in New England, dontchaknow.

Once we arrived in the city, we took a taxi to a big mall where Yuyun had said she'd meet up with us after she got off work.  Stepping into that mall was like stepping into Singapore, and I felt so shabby in my t-shirt and Balinese "fisherman pants," as Megan calls them, that I was actually a little embarrassed.  This shopping mall, with its eight floors of high fashion boutiques and restaurants, skylight roof and elevator that flashed different colored neon lights, was like what I imagine the future might be like.  Only it was still the present.  Yuyun finally found us drooling our way around a hipster bookstore, and we went to eat at restaurant she liked whose specialty was -- get this -- pancakes.  We ordered one savory (which came with an egg), plus one blueberry and one caramelized banana (both of which came with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top).  I mean, breakfast-for-dinner is one thing, but dessert-for-dinner?  Now that's just asking for it.  Which, obviously we did.

Yuyun was stoked to show us around Jakarta, and we spent most of the day on Saturday touring some of the sights of the city until the Jazz Fest started at 5.  Our first stop was the Masjid Istiqlal -- reputably the largest mosque in Southeast Asia -- followed by the old Catholic cathedral across the street with some of the best stained glass I've seen since Europe.  The highlight of the day, however, was the National Museum, which had exhibits for all of Indonesia's main ethnic groups across the different islands, including huge 3D maps, costumes, masks, musical instruments, puppets, and even model houses, which meant I got a sneak peak of the traditional Torajan houses I'm going to see when I travel to Sulawesi in a few weeks (I'll report back).  On our way back to Yuyun's to change for the Jazz Fest, we stopped at another mall to grab lunch at this Japanese-Italian fusion restaurant, which had about 50 different kind of Japanese-themed pasta, many of the dishes served up with egg yolk and eel.  Did I mention that the entire front facade of the restaurant is a glass case featuring the plastic-food incarnations of all of their dishes?  Just like in Tokyo.  What a nice touch.

Then, on to the Jazz Fest.  I haven't been to many music festivals, in Indonesia or otherwise, but this one certainly did not disappoint.  Over the course of the evening, weaving our way through what felt like about half of Jakarta in the Expo center, we saw a mix of Indonesian and international bands, my personal favorite being a Brazilian guitarist named Ivan Lins.  Every other song he played was about his hometown of Rio de Janeiro, but in my opinion, that was part of the charm.

After some pillowtalk back at Yuyun's, Megan and I crashed for a couple hours of sleep before having to be up and on our train back to Yogya by 8:45 the next morning.  Bye-bye, Big Durian.  Clocking in at just under 40 hours, it was a short first taste, to be sure -- but that's the first step in acquiring any taste, right?  I imagine I'll be back for seconds.

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