Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Down the Dark Streets, the Houses Looked the Same

In a slightly more outré move for Metro Madness, a friend and I endeavoured to walk to the city of Palankaraya on the island of Borneo from Jakarta last weekend. This obviously posed one rather intractable problem for us, namely the sea. So before you diagnose me as being in the pathological grip of some delusional, messianic walk-on-water complex, perhaps I’d better back up a little and explain the origin of this perhaps rather harebrained scheme.

The concept of psychogeography was first developed in the fifties by the theorist Guy Debord as, "The study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals." Another definition of psychogeography is, "A whole toy box full of playful inventive strategies for exploring cities. Just about anything that takes pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape."

More recently, one of my favourite writers, Will Self, a darkly comic spinner of surreal urban dramas, revived the concept (and you can find him explaining the whole thing on Authors@Google on Youtube). Self notes how modern, urban life increasingly isolates us on small islands of existence surrounding home, office, pub, etc. And thus we don't have a feel for our urban geography at a visceral, gut (and leg) level, as travel between these isolated urban islands is facilitated passively by means of motorized transportation only invented over the last century or so. Thus no sense of geography or scale are imprinted as mental maps in our brains by our bodies via processes evolved over millions of years.

Self therefore resolved to walk from London to New York, i.e. he walked from his house in south London to Heathrow airport, flew to New York, and then continued his walk from JFK airport to a downtown hotel. The physically tiring effects of the walk, coupled with the passive, geographically isolated downtime spent on the plane, apparently tricked his brain into believing that he had traversed a continuous landmass.

With me so far? So, always a sucker for essentially ludicrous ideas that have been dressed up in a patina of intellectual theorizing, my chum Dan and I set out from Jakarta's street of broken dreams, Jalan Jaksa, just south of Monas, at 2 AM last Friday night and began walking to Soekarno-Hatta airport in order to catch a midday flight. We had elected not to tramp down the airport toll road but instead headed through town towards Jl. Daan Mogot, which we followed until Kelideres bus station before hanging a sharp right onto a smaller road leading to the airport.

The early part of the slog was essentially a night hike, always a strangely haunting experience, punctuated by stops in petrol stations to buy bottles of ale (it was Friday night after all) and by females of dubious character spilling out of Daan Mogot's even more disreputable karaoke joints at about 4 AM. Alas, we had a flight to catch and so couldn't really stop for a curb side knee trembler.

Dawn was soon upon us and we two geographical psychos took full measure of our surroundings. This area of town had something of a post-apocalyptic ambience to it at 5 AM. The adjacent canal hurled ammonia into our eyes and nostrils, piles of rubbish smoked carcinogenically, underclass kids with interesting skin conditions playing among the ruins of civilization and satanic 50 tonne juggernauts shook the asphalt.

Looking south across the canal however, we managed to catch sight of Gunungs Gede and Pangrango shimmering majestically in the sunrise over 50 km away. Just think, if we hadn't decided to hike to the airport at 2 AM in the bloody morning then we'd never seen this spectacular vista. As the sun beat down we eventually neared the airport. We stopped again next to the perimeter fence, some 50m from the start of the runway, and craned our head upwards to watch the landing beasts from about as close as the human eye gets to see them in flight. Just think, if I hadn't hiked for six hours through a desolate series of concrete shanty towns after first having my brain removed with a drinking straw, then I’d have never, etc, etc.

The road eventually joined the end of the airport toll, and the verdant area of lakes and roadside trees that I usually only see through a taxi window. We trudged the final painful hour into Terminal One. It had taken us seven and a half hours and, according to Dan's primitive, steam powered GPS system, we had walked 26 km. We felt a sense of achievement at having reached a level of stupidity and futility that few people ever manage to rise to. Certainly incoming Facebook comments were unforgivingly harsh in their assessment of our mental condition. We could perhaps be in the running for any putative, "Jakarta's Silliest Buggers" award, although in my view we'd be up against some pretty stiff competition there.

After the flight, the Palangkaraya leg of the hike from the airport into town was a three km breeze through bucolic fields and sleepy villages. Any sensible person would have started a hike from here instead. It had been an unforgettable 14 or so hours though, if nothing else, and my blisters testified to an Indonesian experience as far removed from Eat, Pray, Love's, feature length pasta sauce commercial as it's possible to get. Reward in itself I think.