Greetings from Jakarta

It was the poet T. Mulya Lubis who once wrote, roughly translated, “Indonesia’s future is two hundred million mouths gaping.”  As the Blue Bird taxi took me from the Soekarno Airport to Kuningan (sort of the Makati/Fort Bonifacio of our friendly neighbors south of the country), it was easy to see that the one marked, obvious difference between the Philippines and Indonesia is that we drive on the left.

I guess this is reason to believe in the wise words of my high school English teacher: there are more things that bring us together than keep us apart.

I’m here on assignment at work.  After a very productive couple of days in the country offices I found myself in Ambassador Mall right next to the hotel, and found a mini-Greenbelt.  A Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, right next to a Marks & Spencer.

Somehow, I can’t help but be the stereotypical tourist: the displaced guy who somehow looks for differences where none exist, denying obvious similarities whenever they arise.  I can’t be more wrong about my own conceptions of Jakarta based from what I’ve read or heard.  They’re not us, but they’re not different from us.

Their Oakwood area is uncannily similar to Rockwell, and there’s no denying the shared penchant we have for malls.  For the past couple of days in a one-week assignment I’ve dwelled too much, I guess, on the much devalued – and maligned – rupiah, that carrying a big thick wallet of millions in cash is not uncommon for the first-timer.  The choice of beer isn’t the local Indonesian Stark Wheat brew, but the hella Pinoy San Miguel; held in reverence by expats and locals alike.  Stark ain’t bad, for the record: it’s just too similar to Negros’s own Bogsbrew.

Then there are the rolling “r’s” of the locals, the undulating speech that reminds you of old Teresa Teng songs.  The for-hire motorcycles move with the same crazed frenzy, opposite bus drivers who take their time with steering wheels, a drink, and a bun.

You talk to the random Pinoy you run into the elevator and say, “Parang Pilipinas lang no?”  Until your first bite of Indonesian roasted peanuts… then everything changes.  As similar as we are, we’re also very, very different.

I like Jakarta.  It’s charming, very rough around the edges, a lot like Manila.  Behind the towering skyscrapers of the Kuningan district are construction projects like skyways built on top of very narrow highways.  Behind the revered mosques and government buildings are the slums.  The major highways leading to Jakarta have their election propaganda all over them; the taxi driver rants, in halting English, about how Megawati made the country better, and bad decisions were made by her “corrupt successors.”  A lot like how things are in the homeland.

It’s that sense of familiarity – that I’m in a place no different from my own – that gives it its charm.  I’m sure that there are a lot of unique things about Jakarta, but the differences will always be marginal, perhaps even superficial.  From the looks of things, Jakarta is just like us: the charm runs deep, beyond the glitz of the center and the graveness of the periphery, beyond the Blackberry’s role as the Indonesian national phone.  I guess that’s the lesson gleaned from all of this so far: that the mouths of our Indonesian neighbors are probably just like our own, and are agape for reasons similar to our own.

I’m here for three, four more days: three days in Jakarta probably won’t let me experience the entire Indonesian cultural milieu, much less sample all the varieties of krupuk and fried broad beans available to the snack food connoisseur.  The local equivalent of Mini Stop at Tempo Scan will probably amp up the smell of sambal in the morning.  Tomorrow may be different, or more or less the same.

T. Mulya Lubis concludes the poem by saying, “Give Indonesia back to me.”  For me, it’s “Give me Indonesia.”  I guess the first step to all of that is to take a little bit of Indonesia.

Like food.  But that’s for another time.

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