The Fast and the Furious: Jakarta Modified
By Leesha S. Vaswani
“Oh, so now you are being cautious and taking my advice,” I said to my driver as he was putting his seat belt on, before bringing me to my house. “Well, it’s because it has become an official rule,” he answered, and frustratingly added, “If not, I would not even bother!” I was taken aback by this reality. Indeed, having lived in Indonesia for so long, I understand the mentality of the Indonesians, and how they do not particularly like rules. They enjoy their freedom on the road, ignoring the speed limits or any other rule for that matter.
Right after my plane had landed, I felt transported to another world, jetlag perhaps, which seemed strangely familiar. The heat compensated for the fatigue that was present. For me, it did not matter though, Jakarta is the place I call home, and yet every time I return, home was never the same.
That night, my brothers took me for a drive. Fond of cars, Romi, my elder brother, was showing off. He said, “I’ll show you how fast this baby can run.” Like many young men his age, he was inspired by the new American movie: “The Fast and the Furious”. The demand for spare parts to modify cars increased right away following the release of this movie. Pasar Mobil Kemayoran (Translated as Kemayoran Car Market) was opened to answer to this need. It is always packed, and on the weekends, illegal races would take place just outside the open area.
Unaware that the police were patrolling around, Romi was fearless, and could not care less. Being caught was not a big deal. I figured I’d take a twenty thousand Rupiah (equivalent to approximately US$3.00) note out and that would settle the problem. This is of course not what one might think it is. I was not planning to bribe the police. No, no, no! I was just going to let him have some extra money to bring home to his family. To our surprise, the policeman refused, although he seemed tempted. I took out another thirty thousand Rupiah (equivalent to approximately US$4.00) in hopes that it would work this time but it did not either. The policeman revoked my brother’s license and that was the end of it. It was easy to obtain the license back, seeing we have connections in the police station. So, I concluded that the policeman might have not wanted to accept the little extra money because of the exposure in the international media that might occur. Recently, Indonesian policemen are much more careful in dealing with Westerners than other ethnic group, afraid that they might be reporters or journalists. If Indonesia’s name is insulted in the international media, the political figures would not be pleased and what would most likely happen is that the policeman responsible would be sacked from the department. Romi does not have an Indian or an Indonesian complexion, but looks much more like an American.
As we were driving along the famous Bundaran HI (the HI turnabout) on Thamrin Street, nostalgic memories start to swim through my mind. Thamrin Street is home to numerous five star hotels, a luxury many Westerners are able to enjoy when they are in Indonesia, as they can afford it. We turned around to make our way to Plaza Indonesia, which is connected to the famous Grand Hyatt Hotel. Moses, my younger brother, started telling me a story. “Chink, did you know that Uncle PK’s mirrors were stolen right at this red light?” Driving in Jakarta is a challenge, especially if you are a woman, an ethnic Chinese, or if you have a luxurious car. Many homeless teenage Indonesian boys make a living by stealing the side mirrors of luxurious cars and reselling them on the black market. Since spare parts of luxurious cars are hard to find, the black market becomes the only option to try to find them, unless one is patient enough to wait two to twelve months for the legal merchandise to arrive from abroad. Who knows, the side mirrors in the black market could have been yours to begin with.
Stealing side mirrors as well as car stereos and cell phones during a red light stop has become a common phenomenon in the streets of Jakarta. Once, a policeman on duty undercover was on his way back to the Police Station. One red light before he would park his car, a gang of young Indonesian boys crowded around his car and stole both his side mirrors. Outraged, the policeman shot them dead. In the papers, the next day, the policeman claimed that he had warned the boys by shooting three shots in the air before actually aiming at them. In his conversation with my father on the telephone after the event, the policeman had said though that he was upset to begin with because of all the reports and pressure from the elite class he had been receiving lately concerning this matter.
As we reached Plaza Indonesia, I was not surprised really to see that the American coffee house chains had established themselves here. “It’s not only you who can enjoy Starbucks, we can too,” Romi proudly said. Starbucks was everywhere and so was The Coffee Bean. During lunch hours, these coffee houses were always packed. Although expensive, it made you feel like a Westerner. The coffee craze in Jakarta was at its peak during the openings of these two sophisticated coffee houses. It looked inviting, but I wanted something more authentic, which is why we made our way out immediately.
Going along Thamrin Street, I passed one of the biggest McDonald’s that has been around for quite a while now. Next to it is the Hard Rock Café. Beside the Hard Rock Café is Sarinah, a shopping mall where they sell Indonesian goods, from batik to paintings of Indonesian scenery. The word to describe the location is flawless. Profits are made generally from the foreigners who do not wish to integrate themselves with the Indonesian culture, but rather resort to the next best thing: anything that can remind them of home.
Way further, at the center of the city, is the National Monument, also known as Monas (short for Monumen Nasional). On the 17th of August 1945, Soekarno, Indonesia’s first President, declared Indonesia’s independence on this location. It stands tall across the President’s Palace. It looks like a pillar which extends high in the air and becomes smaller and smaller as the eyes scan it higher and higher. These days, access to the park around Monas is limited. Security issues are the main reason of this hassle. I haven’t visited Monas again since I was eight, but I clearly remember the view of the whole city from way up the tower. The top of Monas is made out of real gold, symbolic of Indonesia’s richness.
With Indonesia being a country rich in resources, it is important to mention the rich looking image Indonesians in Jakarta crave to maintain these days. The opening of the MPX Grandé created a competition in the cinema industry. 21 Cinema was what existed for a long time, yet it was challenged by MPX’s new concept: the Diamond Class. The first time I watched a movie in the Diamond class, I was dumbstruck. The Diamond Class provided you with lazy boy seats as well as blankets. Throughout the movie, the employees are at your service. From wine to snacks, I had access to order them all. At the end of the movie, as we came out of the theatre, we met some of my father’s friends. One of them was frustrated when he said, “I cannot believe this. Who on earth would buy up three quarters of the tickets in the Diamond Class? I was supposed to watch a movie there but the tickets were sold out.” Ironically, it was my family. We were twenty watching the movie. Indeed, the existence of MPX Grandé, as well as the gym, a bowling alley, and a food court, has made the place attractive and rich looking. 21 came up with the same idea, by opening the Première, which is a similar concept. No matter who you are, if you can afford watching a movie for approximately US$20 per ticket, plus all that will be spent during the movie, which always happens because the person is assumingly wealthy, at the Diamond Class or the Première, you become part of an elite group.
We were still in the car, deciding what I wanted to eat. It is only at eight in the evening when the restaurants on the streets start their business. From spicy fried rice, to the famous ayam kodok (translated as chicken frog, which is barbecued chicken shaped like a frog), you will find it all in Pecenongan street, similar to Boat Quay in Singapore, minus the classy restaurant atmosphere. Those who are uncomfortable with the ambience stay in the car. The aroma of the food these Indonesian men prepare for you mixed with the different odors of all the hard work of the day, combined with the different types of food cooking at the same time in numerous different stalls and the smell of the street and the pollution of the cars will all together haunt you. It does leave a feeling of discomfort at first. But once you have your food, and the Roti bakar (translated as burnt bread) as dessert along with the avocado juice or es kopyor (translated as ice coconut water), or a mixture of the two, you start to blend with everyone around you. At this point, someone might approach you trying to sell unattractive, cheap goods, like watches or pornography, or pirated VCDs, and you know better as you say “Terima kasih,” or thank you, while nodding your head, implying you do not want it. Once, I felt fur touch my feet as I was eating. I jumped out of my chair! It was a hungry cat that wanted the fish I was eating. Now, isn’t that a coincidence!
Another area where I think the food on the street is unbeatable, and which we finally went to is Menteng, the elite area where the President’s house is located. It is home to the Bubur Ayam Lakers (translated as Lakers chicken porridge) and nasi goreng Menteng (translated as Menteng fried rice), which can be eaten in your car. Once a parking spot is available, the tukang parkir (translated as parking man) asks you, “What do you want, Boss?” This implies that they are expecting a tip when you finish your food. One of the tukang parkir in Menteng recognizes our car and so we are privileged to have quicker service when he is around. As the food is served right in our car, we open our car windows to let the hot fresh air in, while our concentration is directed towards the spicy, tasty food. For our beverage, nothing is better than Teh Botol (translated as tea bottle.) I must warn you, I become annoyed with the young boys who start walking with their guitars and play for you so you will give them money. To avoid them going on and on, you give them some change and they will disappear. Since they know that we will give them money anyways, they do not even attempt to sing. Those who do, stick with the cliché: “Apa susahnya hidup bujangan,” (translated as “What is the hardship of living the life of a bachelor”), referring to their own lifestyles.
Before going home, I had to pass by my grandmother’s place. My grandmother’s house is located next to the most famous shopping streets in Jakarta: Pasar Baroe. Similar to the shopping street in Perth, but not as long and wide as the one in Milan, Pasar Baroe is always packed. Prices are affordable and targeted to all lower, middle as well as upper class clients.
This street was once upon a time accessible by cars. It caused too much traffic. Today, sad as it may seem for us, car owners, and one can only shop in Pasar Baroe if they are ready to walk, or go on a motorcycle, which rarely happens. The open air space seems to attract tourists, but it is uninviting to many Indonesians because nowadays, numerous air-conditioned shopping malls have opened. Yet, they still keep on coming back over and over again.
To get there, there were several routes to choose from. One of them was through the long street of Rasuna Said in Kuningan. Similar to Thamrin, office buildings, as well as apartments and hotels could be found here. The Komplex Menteri (translated as Minister’s Residential Area) was also located here. Ironically, the urban legend associated with Kuningan had to do with the bancis, or as the Indonesians would refer to as males who would dress up as females and strip for you, who hang around here. I have passed through this area a number of times when the bancis were around and my brothers tell me that they never approach our car because they see that there is a girl inside, indicating that we were not a potential client. Once, it is said, there was a guy driving slowly around this area at night, who opened his windows and teased the bancis. He was found knifed to death. We decided to take another route.