This week, I thought that I'd return to my roots, so to speak, and I ended up taking a spin through the very first place that I ever stayed in Jakarta, namely the rough and ready district of Tanah Abang, which can be found very close to Monas. I'm not really sure what spurred this walk down a rather dusty memory lane, although perhaps it was a photo, now well over a decade old, that a friend posted up on Facebook recently. It depicted the old gang, full of smiles, innocence and joie de vivre and it fair brought a tear to my eye so it did.
Anyway, down in Tanah Abang, I strolled through my old ‘hood, namely the complex of four story high apartment blocks known as Rumah Susun in Indonesian. We used to call them, ‘The Projects’ though as it sounded more streetwise and New York hip-hop than their real name. It really wasn't such a bad place to live in however, certainly better than their equivalent in my own home of the UK. There, drugs, gun crime and evil kids shovelling dog excrement and fireworks through pensioners’ letterboxes are the norm. The Indonesian projects though, perhaps like their Singaporean counterparts, are pretty friendly places on the whole.
It's a wonder more accommodation like this isn't built around Jakarta, as it is in Singapore. God knows that this city of 1000 'kampungs' could do with it. I for one certainly didn't regret my year spent in my third floor, small but not absolutely rabbit hutch like flat. In fact the only down side of the whole experience was the morning bread seller who used to ride his bicycle around the towers at five o'clock every morning gleefully honking his horn. I used to entertain fantasies of performing electroshock torture on this poor unfortunate, who would disturb my sleep every single morning. Honk, honk honk, honk, “Roti, roti, roti” honk honk honk. Jesus.
The next part of my voyage through all of my yesterdays took me up the road into the still quite dodgy Tanah Abang market area. This all-time gangsta zone was once the stomping ground of an Indonesian hoodlum and his gang, who, rather humorously, went by the name of Hercules. I believe that Hercules is now out of business and I always used to imagine him as looking like that beefy guy in the Phantom of the Opera mask who’s on that Indonesian crime show every morning, trying to keep people on the straight and narrow and out of clink. I wonder what Hercules is doing these days? Writing his memoirs perhaps, and tending to his begonias.
Tanah Abang market has always been a huge lower class retail scrum, with a specific focus upon the textile industry. The original market burned down a few years ago in somewhat suspicious circumstances, as so many buildings do in this country when plans for new construction are afoot. In its place there now stands an absolutely gargantuan edifice containing a maze of literally thousands of clothes shops. It's all very organised, well, considerably more so than it used to be. Outside however, the area still more closely resembles the refugee camp type ambience of old and there are crippled beggars, piles of garbage and public minivan jams galore to enjoy before you finally reach the hallowed entrance to the market proper.
I headed inside and quickly became lost in the labyrinthine passages filled with bra shops and T-shirt vendors. Prices are amazingly cheap in the new market and I came away with a genuine leather belt which, remarkably enough, genuinely seemed to be made from leather.
I took my leave of the market and headed back out into the heaving, sweating atmosphere of downtown Tanah Abang, an area of the capital that builders of luxury apartments have so far, perhaps wisely, chosen to sidestep. Once this area of Jakarta becomes gentrified then you’ll know that things are really changing. For now though, Tanah Abang remains not so different from how it looked over a decade ago. Just another one of those dusty, timeless Indonesian urban streets blissfully alienated from the mad rush for condominiums and iPhones.
I couldn't really imagine living up in Tanah Abang again these days though. As one gets older one becomes increasingly desirous of a little peace and quiet and to leave the most hectic of urban areas to the younger blades. Mind you, if I really applied the logic of this statement fully, then I most surely wouldn't be living in Jakarta at all. Perhaps it's time for me to go and live halfway up a mountain in Sulawesi then. I could do it, so long as there was a Circle K on the lower slopes.