Friday, April 06, 2007

Selamat Jalan, Jakarta

Written by Lynn

Indonesia is one of the countries that when you think of visiting it you instinctively get that little tight knot of concern in you belly, even if you don't know why. When you look at the Canadian government travel advisory, they just say, "You are advised against non-essential travel to Indonesia, including Bali". And I suppose on the surface of it, there is good reason. Recently there have been terrorist attacks in Indonesia, including the bombing of a tourist resort in Bali in October 2005, and the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in August 2003. More significantly, it seems the only time we in the west hear about Indonesia is when they are in the grips of some awesome natural disaster - tsunamis, earthquakes, unending rivers of boiling mud. So the overall picture from the outside seems pretty grim. But I would have to say that after having been here that you are doing a wonderful country a great disservice by dismissing it as a travel destination.

Having said that the truth is we probably wouldn't have stopped in at Jakarta (and realized what we were missing), except that we were visiting friends of Gilles', Tod and Harkiran. Harkiran works for the Canadian Embassy in Jakarta in the economic development branch and was sent overseas almost 2 years ago. Tod tagged along and ended up working for Unicef as a communications officer with regards to Avian Influenza in the area (a huge problem, Indonesia having just recorded its 74th official death due to Bird Flu). They left Canada just after they got married in the fall of 2005 and haven't been back since. But don't feel too bad for them, they have a great place in Jakarta and are situated at a central location that allows them to fly around South East Asia at dirt cheap prices. This means they can spend one weekend on the beaches of Bali, then next shopping in Singapore, and the one after that visiting ancient temples in Thailand (of coures they are way too busy to take much advantage of this, but at least the opportunity is there). Happily, they were willing to throw open their doors to welcome us into their home.

Jakarta is a city that is hard to define. Many hate it because it is crowded and dirty, full of traffic jams and deisel fumes, and in many places rampant poverty. On the other hand, the public transport system is great, there are many high end and bargain shopping centres and the people are unfailingly friendly and helpful. One thing we can certainly recommend Jakarta for is pirated DVD's, the cheapest and best quality we've seen so far (about $0.80 a disc). We went a little crazy and bought everything from "The Queen" and "The Last King of Scotland" to "Talledega Nights" and "The Number 23". We also indulged in DVD's of tv series, including "Entourage", "Lost" (Gilles' new obsession, he managed to watch 2 full seasons in about 10 days), "House", and "Scrubs". Gilles also managed, to his delight, to find a Krispy Kreme donut shop and became a regular customer.

When we got to Harkiran's and Tod's place it was my first chance to meet them. Incredibly friendly and welcoming, we instantly felt at home. We also got to meet their new puppy, Tika. Tika was a mere 8 week old street dog when Harkiran and Tod first found her abandoned in a parking lot. Full of ear mites and other itchy bugs, hairless patches and bony little ribs, she's a lucky puppy that they could look past it all and see the beauty beneath. By the time we met her a month later, she was an outgoing, happy little thing, full of piss and vinegar (the piss sometimes ending up on the carpet, much to Harkiran's dismay). Spend a little time with her, though, and you're in love. She's smart and independant enough to make you feel like she's being nice to you when she lets you play ball with her. Not exactly the best protection against the HUGE rats you see when walking her after dark, but since she might be smaller than them, I guess we won't hold it against her.

Our first day in Jakarta we made it to the bargain basement shopping centre, Mangga Dua. A bohemoth 7 stories of tiny shops covering most of a block greet you when you get there. There's everything from cheap t-shirts, to (of course) pirated DVD's, to electronics (surprisingly not all that inexpensive in comparison to North America). To offset this we then went to Senayan City where the predominant shops are Gucci, Prada and Boise.

Harkiran, Gilles and I also went to the Imperial theatre to see the movie "300". Now why would we spend all the money to go see a movie in a theatre, when the DVD can be had so cheaply? Well, it's because going to a movie here is an experience. You get reclining lazy boy seats with blankets provided (this is because the air conditioning is set just below freezing) and your food and drink, which you order before hand, is served to you by waiters during the show. The sound is loud enough that most people bring ear plugs, or stuff thier ears with kleenex (no, I don't know why they don't just turn the sound down a little) and the screen is HUGE.

While in Jakarta we crashed a party at the Canadian Embassy (Harkiran and Tod had been invited and we weren't, though I believe this was a gross oversight). There was a jazz duo from Montreal playing there, and we got a chance to meet lots of Canadians (a surprising number really) who were working in Indonesia in various levels of government. The ambassador and his wife, who are new to the area, were very gracious and seemed quite interested in our travel plans.

We also got to go to a St. Patty's day party, held at a real Irishman's house, where the buffet dinner consisted of foods only green, white and orange (including the jello shooters). The beer of the night - Guiness, of course, with Kilkenny's for those of us unable to down too many of the "liquid breads". The night would not be complete without an Irish trivia contest, which my team should have won handily (admittedly because we had the only other native Irish person on our team), except we refused to stand up and sing Irish ditties out loud.

The next day I was scheduled to leave for diving in Manado. Because it was my birthday, Harkiran and Tod took us out for an ENORMOUS brunch at the Four Season's hotel. Only brunch I've ever been to where you have to decide if you want the stir fried lobster, the cold tiger shrimp, the raclette, the sashimi or the foie gras (never had it before, turns out I don't like the stuff) amongst piles of other stuff. Well, tough choices all around.

Barely able to walk after eating so much, I said my goodbyes and hopped in a cab to the airport. I was off to Manado on Sulawesi island to go scuba diving. Gilles was heading to Bali with vague plans to meet up with Tod and another friend, Jay, who were starting a 3 week holiday later that week. So for the first time in almost 6 months we were actually travelling on our own - scary thought, isn't it....................

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