Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Jalan Jaksa

I planned my one-week trip to Indonesia with no guide book. I made my decision to spend half of it in Jakarta based on nothing other than the fact that it seemed to make sense to visit the capital city. A few days before I left, I did some research online to see what there was to do there.

This is how the Lonely Planet online describes Jakarta: “Whether you love it or hate it, there is no escaping Jakarta, Indonesia’s overweight capital. This ‘Big Durian’ is filled with all the good and bad of Indonesian life... The first – or only – thought on most travellers’ minds is how quickly the city and its polluted streets can be left behind.”

I am fluent in Lonely Planetese. This is the translation in normal English: “Jakarta is a polluted, noisy, crowded and stressful city with not much for tourists to do. Bet you wish you read this before you booked your flight. Enjoy. Sucker.”

The Lonely Planet was right. The very first thing that happened to me was my taxi driver from the airport misunderstood or ignored my directions and dropped me off at an overpriced guest house in the middle of nowhere. I debated wandering around the city with no map and my heavy backpack looking for somewhere cheaper. Laziness won.

After I went to the film festival and met the organizer for lunch the next day, I found myself wandering around the city getting cat called and nearly run over. Not sure what to do with myself, I wandered in to a cafe to order an iced coffee and read a book.

Two Dutch sisters, Dionne and Lianna, sat down at the same table as me. We drank martinis. We went for dinner in the market food stalls. They invited me to come for a drink at a bar on Jalan Jaksa, the main backpacker street where their guest house is. This is the street I was trying to find when I was leaving the airport.

“Our guide book said it’s like Khao San Road in Bangkok,” said Dionne, rolling her eyes. “It is NOT like Khao San Road.”

Oh man, were they ever right.

Khao San is famous/notorious for being a 24-hour circus, where you can drink on the street and can’t escape the blaring techno music or people trying to sell you gigantic lighters. In a way, Jalan Jaksa IS sort of like Khao San - if it stuck around partying in Southeast Asia for a few too many years and woke up one morning realizing it was bankrupt and suffering from arthritis and alcoholism.

On Khao San, you can’t escape the neon signs and seizure-inducing strobe lights. On Jalan Jaksa, all they have is one sad looking banner spelling out the name of the street in sagging and half burnt-out Christmas lights. On Khao San, everyone drinks like it’s New Year’s. On Jalan Jaksa, everyone drinks because if they stop drinking, they’ll remember they’re on Jalan Jaksa.

Anyway, so there I was, sitting on a plastic patio set drinking beer with two Dutch sisters, trying to forget I was on Jalan Jaksa.

One of the bar owners took a liking to Lianna. Dionne and I resisted their attempts to get us to sit at their table until they started brandishing a bottle of tequila.

So there I was, sitting on a wooden bar stool, doing tequila shots with two Dutch sisters, a Brazilian guy who came out of nowhere when he saw the tequila, and the two gap-toothed and robustly moustachioed men who own the bar. One of them decided I was his new friend. “My daughter, my daughter,” he kept calling me.

So there I was, dancing at the front of the bar because Lianna had taken over the microphone. The ladies of the night were linking arms with the cockroaches and doing the can-can. The sewer rats were clinking shot glasses with the bar owners and the Brazilian guy.

So there I was, in my bed in my overpriced guest house far away from Jalan Jaksa. Afternoon sunlight was peeking in through the curtains.

Jalan Jaksa, man.

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