Saturday, April 25, 2009

We Were Somewhere Around Barstow.....

Let us give thanks that the elections are over, for another couple of months at least. The Indonesian public has stuck to its half of the democratic bargain admirably by refraining from setting fire to each other's motorcycles and instead turning the elections into a celebration of community spirit. Now it's up to the politicians to live up to their half of the deal when the new parliament convenes after the presidential elections. Just turning up at all would be a good start given the traditional levels of absenteeism in the two houses.

After all of this democratic fervor however, I felt I needed a little break from Jakarta's pell-mell chaos and decided to negotiate the potholes out of town. I should stress though that I hold no truck with a recent survey that asserts that Jakarta is the second worst city in the entire world for expatriates to live in. The report cites the general pollution and disorder, which I can't really take issue with, but also safety and security factors, which I find a trifle harsh. I'd much rather be sitting in a warung at midnight than mixing it up with the North Londoners of my home as I try and get my hands on a take away kebab after the pubs close. We may not have a very good football team in England but we have first class hooligans to take pride in.

In fact it was affairs of the heart, rather than a fear of being mugged, that was the main catalyst for me hitting the road and heading down to the beach for a couple of days with the chaps during the long weekend. A poem I discovered recently by the current enfant terrible of the UK art scene, Banksy, seemed to sum my situation up aptly:

Beyond watching eyes with sweet and tender kisses,
Our souls reached out to each other in breathless wonder.
And when I awoke from a vast and smiling peace,
I found you bathed in the morning light, quietly studying,
All the messages on my phone.

So, a trip to Pelabuhan Ratu, the jewel of southwest Java it was. A chance to put amorous stress on the back burner for a couple of days whilst turning a vibrant hue of lobster pink. Steaming down the toll road towards Bogor is always a pleasure. Not only are you released from Jakarta's sump like ambience but you can also entertain the fantasy that you're in a clean and efficient country as you drive at speed without the risk of knocking a family of five off their scooter or rounding a corner and tooling into a fried rice cart at 60mph.

Even the service stations seem quite modern these days. In the West, drivers like to stop at such places for a round of ludicrously overpriced sandwiches and to take a rest from driving by playing driving video games. Asian toll road stations, by contrast, are supposed to be seedy hotbeds of horny truckers and prostitution. alas though, I found little to get the pulse racing as I steamed onwards towards Bogor.

At the end of the toll, things slow down considerably of course, although the road is currently in a better condition than it is in most places in Jakarta. The final 40km stretch through the mountains to the coast is a switchback ride of hairpin bends and breathtaking scenery. Admiring the view whilst on the road though could see you careering off the asphalt and down a hillside in a heartbeat, scattering chickens and batik clad grandmothers in your wake. As it was, I swerved to avoid a pothole in true Starsky and Hutch style and almost took out a scooter.

Down at the beach though, all my cares melted away in a haze of Bintang, sand, sun and grilled fish. The only potential fly in the ointment is the sea itself, the stalking ground of Nyai Loro Kidul, the (hopefully) mythical Queen of the South Seas who’s dragged many an unsuspecting swimmer to a watery grave. There's a permanent room kept aside for the goddess at the huge Samudra Beach Hotel, originally built by President Sukarno, who was a big Pelabuhan Ratu fan.

Apparently Ms. Kidul is fond of the colour green and so I gleefully charged into the sea, feeling safe in my shocking pink trunks. The sand eventually dropped away beneath my feet and I was out of my depth though. No problem I thought. Five minutes later I was breathlessly swimming against the riptide, trying to claw my way back to the shore. You've got to watch that Indian Ocean I'm telling you. I'm clearly not cut out to mix it up with the five-year-old Sundanese kids who skimmed past my ears on their boards.

Back on dry land, I decided to do a bit of sunbathing instead. Many Indonesians had also made it down to the coast during the long weekend. Despite the kilometers of beautiful beach however, they had all inevitably crowded onto a 100 meter long strip. This left the rest free for my companions, myself and a few mud caked bison. Paradise. Drop us a line if you fancy a lift down next time, we'll split the petrol.