Saturday, August 22, 2009

Rum, Sodomy & the Lash

Sukarno be praised, Independence Day fell fortuitously on a Monday this time around affording us white to off white collar types the opportunity to slip town for three days. I packed up my tent, swimming trunks, a bottle of Jim Beam, some sunblock and a roll of toilet paper and stepped outside the house at 4:30 a.m. on Saturday morning. The local mosques were trying to insinuate their distorted, mid-frequency, PA system blare into my half conscious infidel brain and were succeeding admirably. 4:30 a.m. is surely an ungodly time of day to be up and about. I have my suspicions that the Almighty actually said that everyone had to be up by 4:30 p.m. and was misquoted.

After meeting my posse at McDonald's Sarinah and forcing down one of their healthy meat sandwiches and a portion of cardboard french fries in a vain attempt to inject a bit of life into the old frame, we headed up to the North Jakartan port of Muara Angke in order to make best our escape by sea.

Muara Angke, it should be explained, is one of North Jakarta's most virulent horrors. The very smell of the place, a pungent blend of sea water and raw sewage, was almost enough to cause my burger to come trampolining straight back out again (and they are never that easy to keep down at the best of times I've noticed, especially at that time of morning, although that's usually because I've just drunk my weight in Bintang). It's probably a blessing in disguise that global warming looks set to submerge irredeemably scum infested slums such as Muara Angke in a watery grave.

As we made our way quayside, the piquant smell of a million Jakarta toilet flushings were joined in the mix by mountains of trash and a layer of diesel fuel on the water, refracting the sunlight that fell on it as if in a vain attempt to distract attention away from this vision of hyper industrial squalor.

They do actually sell seafood at Muara Angke in fact however now was not the time. Instead I popped into a Minimart and bought some water for the trip. The girl behind the counter gave me part of my change in the form of candies. You know, I've often considered trying to pay for stuff in these shops with candy as well but my betting is that they would not be best pleased.

Anyway, we quickly hopped onto a public boat and prayed for a rapid departure. Alas though, we were forced to wait another half an hour until the boat was rammed to about four times its legal maximum capacity. They do this on the buses too of course however the consequences are usually less serious when the bus gets a puncture, especially considering the fact that most Indonesians can't actually swim.

You can't complain though at Rp.30,000 for a two and a half hour trip in this day and age and we were soon skimming across the Jakarta sludge in search of clearer waters. Once you pass the first of Jakarta's Pulau Seribu (Thousand Islands) things do indeed start to clear. In fact, a Thousand Islands boat trip is seemingly as much a journey in time as it is in space as one travels from 21st-century overload teetering on the verge of collapse to a primordial, coral fringed Eden (although most of the actual coral itself hasn't gone the distance it has to be said).

There may not really be a thousand islands in this mini Archipelago but there are hundreds, apparently, and a few days skimming through the chain can be the most fun you've ever had in Indonesia outside of hiding behind the curtains and pretending to be a ghost when the maid comes in.

I've written about the Pulau Seribu before, it has to be said. This time around, however, the Independence Day celebrations taking place on one of the larger, more populated islands, Pulau Pramuka, proved to be quite interesting. Out on the waterfront, various uniformed officials were sweating buckets as their outsized epaulettes wilted in the sizzling temperatures. According to some of the rubbernecking locals around the edges of the event, Mr. 'Vote for me, I've got a moustache' himself, namely Jakarta's governor, Fauzi Bowo, was due to put in an appearance, although probably that was just a rumour that had been put about. I'm not sure he gets out to these pretty neglected islands much. Possibly he was busy with Jakarta's Independence Day celebrations, being sponsored to have his moustache dyed white and red in attempt to raise money for more busway buses. Something along those lines anyway.

He missed a treat though. Convoys of decorated floats traditionally parade around Jakarta's streets on 'Hari Merdeka' however out in the islands we were treated to a veritable flotilla of boats sailing round and round in circles in front of the marina. The bluff old sea dogs piloting these crates had clearly spent some serious time and effort decorating their boats and I managed to snap some jolly amusing photographs. One small tug had a six-foot tall version of Monas erected on its foredeck whilst another had been decked out to resemble a rather lopsided shark. Other Independence Day treats included a mockup of a navy gunboat and, my favourite of all, a boat kitted out to resemble an enormous turtle, complete with a string operated, opening and shutting mouth that jutted from the vessel's prow. You wouldn't have had turtle boats under the Dutch, no siree Bob.

So let's raise a glass to 64 years of relentless innovation and progress that have catapulted Indonesia to the forefront of global affairs and prosperity. Merdeka!