Mandalay, Timbuktu, Jaipur, Katmandu. Names once known only to half-crazed explorers and rogue entrepreneurs. Each an exotic destination armchair travelers could discover only in the bound pages of such great authors as W. Somerset Maugham, George Orwell, and Bombay-born Rudyard Kipling. With eyes closed, recall their words and imagery of powerful plantation owners in frumpled linen suits, gin and tonics in hand. Of rubber tree tappers padding through dark forests in a cadence with candles strapped to their foreheads, shadowed by monkeys overhead. Of smoky tiffen houses with traders swapping spice cargoes for sketches of uncharted seas. Of rickshaw pullers delivering a rainbow of orchids for the verandah. And of delicate ladies suffering the afternoon’s suffocating heat with mint teas and tiny parlor servants rhythmically tugging on the overhead paddle fans.
The name “Jakarta” wafts on the cigar smoke of gentleman’s clubs and ranks among the world’s most storied colonial outposts, entrepôts, and escapes.
Batik, Bling and Designer Handbags
That was then, and this is truly now.
Greater Jakarta today is home to, and this is the government’s best estimate, 23 million people ranking it among the world’s biggest cities. It stands as a compromise, a blend of west and east in architecture and lifestyle. Within the city proper there are 8.5 million people who scurry off daily to the national stock exchange, designer boutiques, sports facilities to train for the Asian Games, and noodle shops to ready the mid-day meal. They also practice their faith in mosques dotted about the country that boasts an 86% Muslim population.
Jakarta by any other name is… Sunda Kelapa, as it was known from 397 to 1527; Jayakarta till 1619; Batavia until 1942; and Jakarta for the next 30 years bearing the name given it by the Japanese. Whatever you call it, this city is rich in offerings to visitors who want history, culture, cuisine or bling.
History buffs will have much to fill their touring plate. The National Museum, also known as the Elephant Museum, houses 140,000 collections of everything from pre-historic to colonial times highlighting the multicultural, multi-faith diversity. Jakarta, for the record, has 22 different languages. Visitors could easily spend the entire day in the museum but other sites beckon like the National Monument, known by the Indonesian people as Monas. It recognizes the country’s heroes who fought against colonialism. This enormous monument also functions as one of the city’s dramatic landmarks. The flame, a beacon of national pride, atop the 450-foot-tall pillar is decorated with more than 75 pounds of gold plate.
More history plays out in Fatahillah Square. Its imposing buildings speak of a time in the 18th century when the Dutch colonial powers held sway here. Local people call this area “Kota Tua,” which means “old city” or Old Batavia. Alive with activity, the square is also home to the Fine Arts and Ceramics Museum, the Jakarta History Museum, and the Puppet Museum.
Puppets, Patterns and Pewter
Indonesian puppets do not resemble the puppets we know… remember Snap, Crackle, and Pop? They’re “shadow” puppets and date back some two centuries. Experts aren’t certain if this art form was introduced to Java from India or if it originated here. What is known is that these 2-dimensional wayang kulit puppets are manipulated by a lone puppeteer who also narrates the story while providing chants and song for punctuation. The puppets’ shadows are cast upon a backlit screen and often tell stories about good triumphing over evil. They are works of art, crafted from leather and water buffalo hide, and are ideal souvenirs for they’re light, packable, and unique mementos from this part of the world.
Batik is the same. This fabric dying process is said to have originated in Java many centuries ago. Artists either drip wax free form onto undyed material or stamp on patters from wooden blocks dipped into hot wax. It’s then submerged into dye vats, retrieved, dried, and the process is repeated, perhaps with a different color subject to the artist’s whim.
Pewter and silver are also Indonesian specialties. The former was fashioned into jewelry, figurines, and household items. Silver, on the other hand, served the more important role of indicating the owner’s wealth or status in the community. Personal jewelry and silver adornment for furnishings were and are mere examples of how this precious metal belongs to those with the means to purchase it.
But today, nothing says more about one’s place in society than his or her latest, hottest designer handbag or piece of luggage. Jakarta’s merchants stand at the ready to answer their contemporary prayers. This is retail heaven. Beware, though, for there are fine knock-offs for sale that are either a fabulous bargain or a trademark theft… let your conscience (and the authorities) be your guide.
All too soon it will be time to retreat to the ship in a harbor far sleeker and visitor-friendly than the old Sunda Kelapa. This waterfront bastion has been operating since the 12th century. Today it’s home to ships, fishing boats, ferries, even phinisi schooners with their colorful sails and traditional design. Their image, silhouetted against the backdrop of the Java Sea, should set the tone for an afternoon in a wicker lounge, a dog-eared copy of some steamy colonial novel in hand, a Pimms Cup just out of reach. Instead of a year of living dangerously, you’ll enjoy an afternoon of lounging comfortably. Yes. Yes.