Friday, October 13, 2006

We’re Going to the Zoo, You Can Come Too….

Zoos are perhaps a slightly anachronistic concept these days. Most people prefer to see their animals strolling unconfined around a spacious safari park than looking despondently through the bars of small cages like some Victorian freak show. A decent safari park (Taman Safari) can be found out past Bogor on the road to Puncak. The city zoo, however, is much nearer. Follow Jl. Mampang Prapatan south until you reach the southern part of the ring road. Then, instead of turning right to the chimps’ tea party that is Cilandak Town Square in full swing. Continue south for another kilometer or so until you hit Ragunan Zoo.

The zoo costs a mere Rp.3000 to enter (Rp.2000 for children) which includes a Rp.300 insurance premium. Should your head be ripped off by a huge mountain gorilla or you have the Nasi squeezed out of you by a boa constrictor, you stand to collect a massive Rp.7,500,000 payout. Very reassuring. Stroll through the zoo's main entrance and you will find yourself in a huge park. My memories of zoos are closely intertwined with that of childhood: school trips to London Zoo, being sick on the coach trip there, losing my packed lunch, teachers losing their sanity, flipping off the monkeys, laughing at the Makaks (Oo! Ma kaks!), etc etc. The Jakarta zoo obviously fulfils the same educative function as zoos do elsewhere. Visit on a public holiday and you'll be overwhelmed by millions of family and school outings. Kids (and adults) will be ignoring all the signs and feeding buns, peanuts and bananas to listless, manically depressed animals suffering from middle-aged fur loss. It's generally a total hullabaloo and if you include the, "Hello Mr." factor, if you're a western visitor, you can be, at times, actually unsure as to which side of the cages' bars you are on. Should you wish to join this pell-mell bedlam on a public holiday then you'll find all the usual zoo motifs to be present and correct: elephants (looking a bit emaciated some of these), tigers, giraffes, zebras, a huge gorilla enclosure, Komodo dragons and ritual humiliation of the animals shows (snake dancers, elephant rides, etc etc).

For me though, I find that a visit to the zoo on a common or garden weekday to be most fortifying. Ragunan becomes a peaceful place as there are very few visitors and many of the special enclosures are closed. However, forget about the animals for a moment and consider the fact that Jakarta’s zoo is pretty much the only real park in town. By real park I mean that you can truly get away from the stresses of city life, as opposed to the area around Monas or that place in Menteng, which are little more than glorified traffic islands. Sad as it is, between Ancol in the north and Ragunan Zoo in the south, the city is woefully deficient in its green areas and this is a problem that is only getting worse with all the ceaseless development. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if some developer has his beady little avaricious eye on the zoo too and plans to turn it into a zoo-mall complete with robo-animatronic lions and tigers for the kids and a branch of Starbucks.

As it stands though, for Rp.3000 you can have a midweek stroll around beautifully peaceful gardens and grass areas and meditate away your nervous metropolitan tensions. There's even a sizeable lake which can be enjoyable to sit next to with a can of Bin(a)tang purchased from one of the zoo's many Warungs. The lake certainly differs from Jakarta's other waterways in that it's not full of human excrement, discarded Aqua bottles and dead rats and you can take in a view of the park’s tree filled vistas without singeing your nostrils. Yes, midweek is the best time to visit and, in fact, you may find that visitors are even thinner on the ground these days due to a recent bird flu scare that closed the Ragunan for a couple of weeks.

Victorian throwbacks zoos may be but I'll support Jakarta's quaintly old fashioned zoological gardens to the bitter end against the ever-increasing tide of fast food restaurants, 24-hour Internet access, multi-storey car parks and polyphonic ring tones. Just watch out for that H5N1.

Simon Pitchforth