Friday, February 05, 2010

Lake of Fire

Last weekend, I revved up the old banger and drove down to one of the few Jakarta tourist spots to have so far eluded my attentions. Around four or five kilometers southeast of Ragunan Zoo in South Jakarta, on the way to Depok, lies Setu Babakan, one of the city's more sizeable lakes. Around the lake's perimeter you'll find a Betawi Cultural Village which is devoted to preserving the ethnic and cultural heritage of Jakarta's indigenous people.

There are apparently around 2.5 million Betawi people in the capital which is, I guess, around a quarter of Jakarta's total population. The Betawi have a culture and a language, not to mention music, traditions and food, that are all distinct from Java's Sundanese and Javanese populations. They are also known for their rough and ready manner, their openness to strangers and even for their short temperedness, all character traits that are anathema to the supposedly refined Javanese.

Anyway, I headed down a bumpy track to the side of the lake and took a stroll down Setu Babakan's bucolic (and only slightly bubonic) boulevards. The lake is ringed with cheap and cheerful chairs, tables and 'warungs', at which courting couples can whisper sweet nothings in each other's ears whilst taking in the pleasant views of the lake and scoffing down a few bowls of ‘baso’ meatballs. There were plenty of amorous young blades present on my visit in fact, all enjoying the relative pollution free calm.

There were also a few groups of Betawi gentlemen enjoying some rather dubious looking homemade concoctions and shambling about arhythmically to a cassette of traditional Dangdhut music. One of them tipped a bottle of Red Bull into a mineral water bottle of fearsome looking brown liquid and offered me a swig. Fearing for the health of my optic nerves, I declined his kind offer of a Pertamina Pina Colada and continued on with my stroll.

If the Sharia religious police ever manage to expand their sphere of influence down through Sumatra and on into Jakarta, then they will surely have a field day cracking the skulls of the young couples and half cut ‘bapaks’ down at the Betawi Cultural Village. Let us hope that such a vision never come to pass.

Also stationed around the lake were various fishermen trying to hook a few bites and carp and tilapia are supposedly there for the taking. Mind you, I saw precisely nothing swimming through the rather brackish waters and perhaps this isn't surprising given that the lake is fed directly from the somewhat less than pristine Ciliwung River.

Also, next to the lake I came across a hawker selling posters of a chap called Benyamin Sueib, who was apparently a famous native Betawi actor. "Mr. Ben -- 1939 -- 1995" was the legend under one such poster. Yet another Indonesian gentleman fails to make 60. Ho hum. Perhaps those homemade, lakeside cocktails were a contributing factor to Mr. Ben's demise. The other famous ethnic Betawi gentleman is, of course, Jakarta's current governor and moustache enthusiast, Mr. Fauzi Bowo. I wonder if he ever brought a lady friend down to Setu Babakan during his formative years?

Next to the lake, sits the Betawi Cultural Village and this is well worth a look around. Regular musical and theatrical performances are held here and, on Thursday nights, Silat demonstrations can also be watched. Silat is Indonesia's indigenous martial art so I'd recommend standing well back if you do go along.

Strolling back lakeside, it was time to head out on the high seas in a pedal powered, fiberglass sea lion with a ball balanced on the end of its nose. Not quite hang gliding at the Bogor Lido for sure but extreme sport enough for a Sunday afternoon, after a Saturday night weighing Anker in Bintang Bay. A 20 minute, self powered cruise will set you back a mere Rp.5000 per person.

Back on dry land, I rounded off a fine Betawi afternoon with a tub of my favorite durian ice-cream, purchased from one of the lakeside stalls. It hadn't quite been a holographic, high-tech ride through Disneyland but Setu Babakan at least has the ring of cultural authenticity to it. Even the hello misters and suggestive innuendo were bang on target.

Perhaps though, with a little investment, the place could be turned into a modern Betawi theme park. They could put in a loop the loop roller coaster with a Bluebird taxi going round it, or a Ferris wheel with Bajajs for gondolas. They could even set up a gridlocked dodgems ride on which one only gets to move five centimeters during a single five minute session. Drivers would also get to have real, authentic Betawi road rage punch-ups with other dodgems drivers who bump into them.

Eventually, it was time to head home and I left the courting threesomes (boy, girl, scooter) of Setu Babakan to enjoy the dusk in peace. If you've already done Ancol, Taman Mini, Taman Safari and the zoo, then this relaxing little spot could be just the ticket. Just don't drink any strange liquids if offered.