Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Goodbye, Indonesia

Day 143: Jakarta, Java, Indonesia
I splurged on an executive overnight train to Jakarta. It was $24 for the eight-hour trip, but it had air-conditioning and reclining seats, a welcome change from the filthy, crowded public buses I had been using. I wasn't able to sleep thanks to the man across the aisle from me who was talking loudly to his friend for almost three hours. I've never heard someone talk so fast for so long. The voices in the carriage grew quiet around one o'clock in the morning, but the offensive fluorescent lighting never dimmed, and the sliding door to the coach banged open and shut all night as the train rocked. At one point our train stopped mysteriously for half an hour with no one boarding or exiting. It turned out we were waiting for a train heading in the opposite direction to pass. Travel in Indonesia can be painfully slow sometimes.

Skyline of Jakarta at night, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Skyline of Jakarta at night, Java, Indonesia
The train arrived at the station in central Jakarta at the absurd hour of 5 a.m. – and it was an hour late. I had contacted a guy named Anton through CouchSurfing and was planning on staying with him in Jakarta. He was nice enough to pick me up from the train station, even though it turned out he couldn't host me. He also helped me out by calling BCA, the bank whose ATM ate my card, to ask how I could retrieve it. It wasn't good news: BCA's policy is to destroy non-BCA bank cards that are eaten by their ATMs, even if I could show that my passport matched my name on the card. BCA was a dead end, so we grabbed breakfast, and then Anton dropped me off at a cheap guest house in the backpacker area before he went to work.

As a last resort, I visited the U.S. embassy to see if they could do anything to convince BCA Bank not to destroy my card. The embassy was a nightmare of security, and given Jakarta's history of terrorist bombings, I'm not surprised. Even as an American citizen, I was not even allowed in the gate without a scheduled appointment, which could only be made during a two-hour window in the afternoons. It was futile to explain to the guard that I could not possibly have made an appointment, as the incident had occurred only the day before. I tried to explain that my Indonesian visa expired the next day, and that I was flying to Singapore, but he would make no accommodation to allow me to ask someone if the embassy could even help. It probably couldn't anyway – I suppose they have more important things to worry about. At least I knew the score; my card was irretrievably lost. So now my only option is to have a new card sent to me whenever I stop for more than a few days somewhere. It's hard to receive mail when you're constantly on the move. I'm lucky that I have my other bank card.

Canal, Jakarta, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Canal in Jakarta, Java, Indonesia
Even though I hadn't slept on the train, there was no point in wasting the day napping, so with the bank card issue at a halt for now, I mustered my energy and set out to explore the city. An estimated 22 million people live in the urban agglomeration, making Jakarta the second most populous city in the world. With forests of skyscrapers, sprawling shopping malls, and epic traffic clogging the highways, Jakarta looks like some super-L.A. Beneath the surface of gleam and polish, ugly poverty grips the city. Slums sprawl along sewage-filled canals, saturated with the stench of decaying garbage. The contrast between modern boulevards and crumbling, Third World alleyways is glaring.

In the Menteng subdistrict, I visited the school attended by Barack Obama when he lived in Jakarta in the 1960s; a statue of him as a boy sits in the courtyard. I also visited the Istaqlal Mosque, the largest in Southeast Asia, and Merdeka Square, which boasts the 422-foot-tall National Monument at its center. In the evening, I met back up with Anton and a couple of German backpackers, and we went to a rooftop restaurant for dinner. The view of Jakarta at sunset was breathtaking.

Old City Hall, Jakarta, Java, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Old City Hall, Jakarta, Java, Indonesia
This morning, I visited Jakarta's Old Town, Kota, which contains the vestiges of the Dutch colonial capital of Batavia, founded in the early 1600s. The former city hall, built in 1710, served as the administrative headquarters of the Dutch East India Company, which controlled the region at the time. The Dutch-style canals that were built in Batavia are today not much more than rivers of sewage flanked by dilapidated colonial buildings. I enjoyed a cup of coffee in the lonely Café Batavia on the main square of Taman Fatahillah, and then proceeded to find an ojek (motorbike taxi) back to my guest house. It was a surprisingly time-consuming task to find one; when I'm not looking for transport, I'm endlessly bombarded by offers, but when I actually want to go somewhere, there are no taxis in sight. Once I finally found a motorbike, the driver navigated through the dense Jakarta traffic, stopping often to ask directions. Ojek, becak, and taxi drivers never seem to know where anything is in their own city, even if you are asking to go to the central tourist hotel district. Of course, they don't acknowledge that they don't know where your destination is until you're already on the vehicle.

I was soon back at my hotel, having explored Jakarta as thoroughly as can be done in two days. After spending the past month in Indonesia (the longest I've spent in any country so far on this trip), I am leaving for the airport and will be in glitzy Singapore in just four hours.

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