Saturday, December 05, 2009

Unlikely "holiday" destinations

Aficionados (if plural) of this blog may be expecting aspirational prose and attempts at global philosophy but then again, maybe not. However, when the first destination is most definitely not a holiday haven, please don't expect great flights of fancy: Jakarta is definitely not a place to get away from it all: rather the contrary. And sitting as I am in the subterranean zone of a multi-tower apartment block complex with little light but plenty of noise from the small but intrusive television on the wall.

If I was feeling creative, I might expatiate on the theme of "Rain dries up taxi flow" and recount our experiences of how a bit of a downpour turns this already dysfunctional city into one continuous jam. The doorman at Block 14 said "taxis finished". It had started to rain heavily and no taxi was going to come out for a booking when fares were to be found begging on every corner. Even the ones that dropped off at the flats were picking and choosing their destinations and a request for "Blok M" only elicited a four-finger gesture, which I took to mean 4xmeter amount but apparently was simply "minimum 40,000" (less than 3 pounds in fact but he was gone already). We abandoned waiting for an amenable driver and headed out to the main road. It was Friday (Moslem Sunday, of course), still raining and the road was solid with clogged traffic. None of the taxis had their lights lit (plying for hire) so if we were to make it to Jackie's dentist appointment, there was only one option: motorbike taxis. They were asking 50,000 each - 3.30 in sterling - but they at least would get us there in time. It was hardly going to break the bank, but we were perhaps at risk of breaking a leg as the riders wove expertly round cars, over pavements, among other riders, dashed into gaps, detoured through forecourts, sliding though the smallest of gaps - fun but scary too, at least for this retiree four-wheel preferer. Through the whole of the 1/2 hour trip we saw only one taxi for hire. The fact that taxis are so cheap (to us) is fine in the good weather but means that in the rain many people feel they can afford one. They must pray for rain - and the motorcycle taxis doubly so.

Jakarta today is barely recognisable as the city I first saw in 1974 when poverty was extreme and extremely distressing. Not that people are comfortable - a worker by the road asked us for money and a tip of 6p is really appreciated for a small service - but I've seen no ulcer-covered beggars wading through open sewers in search of the merest item to sell, as I did then. And the volumes of private cars clogging the roads suggests someone is doing OK. In some respects it's reminiscent of Bangkok in the 70s but with a skyline of Bangkok today. What Jakarta lacks but is only likely to get by the end of the coming decade is a practical rapid mass transit system. Bangkok has its Skytrain AND underground, KL its monorail but this huge and sprawling metropolis has only a rag-tag system of buses and roads unable to cope.

We're staying 23 floors up in the air, with a fine view of the skyscrapers - and the pollution: worse than anything I remember from Bangkok. It has the convenience of being a home but it's not ours, so it has the complexities of being on someone else's turf - a bit claustrophobic and inhibited. Still, we're getting out of town tomorrow (6th December), perhaps in the direction of Krakatau. Hopefully it will be a relief!


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