Sunday, February 27, 2005

2. NIGHT AND DAY

Our nightlife tour began at a massage parlour in Jakarta’s Pasar Jahat, a scruffy dimly-lit area containing shops and stalls selling everything from batik to bananas. From the parlour’s plush reception area, with its pink sofas and a glass tank containing an albino python, Fergus and I were escorted upstairs to our respective curtained cubicles in what looked like a hospital ward. The air conditioning was freezing. I examined the sheet on my bed and noticed the hairs and little flakes of skin left behind by previous occupants. My tummy began to misbehave. Could it be ‘Jakarta tum’?

"Satu jam?" said a figure appearing suddenly inside the cubicle and then disappearing before I could reply.

I removed my shoes and lay on the bed. A mosquito hovered somewhere above my head. My bloated tummy rumbled.

"Satu jam," announced the woman who had crept back into the cubicle. She was not young, she was not pretty and she had filthy fingernails. Where had these fingers been?

"Dutch?" she asked, as she began to haul off my socks. There was something callous about her mouth and she had the sniffles.

"English," I replied, while holding on to what remained of my clothing.

"You like massage here?" she said pointing somewhere at my middle.

"No thank you. Tidak boleh. It’s my shoulders that hurt."

With her cold wet hands she began torturing my toes and eventually reached my appendix scar an area which is peculiarly sensitive.

"Ouch. Not there. Tidak disana."

She tittered and pressed even harder. She didn’t like me.

"My shoulders. Here," I said.

After half an hour she began yawning and looking up at the ceiling. After thirty five minutes she stopped altogether.

"You have shower now. You give me tip," she said.

"I’m supposed to have an hour. Satu jam. If you want a tip, invest in Microsoft and avoid the Jakarta stock market."

She wasn’t listening so I got dressed and pulled back the curtain to make my exit.

"You give me tip," she said, grasping my arm hard.

I shook loose and went downstairs to wait for Fergus who eventually appeared with a slight grin on his face.

"What was she like?" I asked.

"A Sundanese girl. Really helped the old shoulders. Your massage?"

"Oh, fine," I lied. "And where are we off to next?"

"The Gamesman’s Bar in Blok M. It’s not far."

The Gamesman’s Bar, on a dark little street with potholes, was a place of bulky Brits, fat Americans, pool tables, mirrors, chrome, and numerous TV screens showing baseball games. It was here we met up with a fellow-Brit called Carmen, a small, bouncy, plainly dressed teacher in her middle years, who had volunteered to come with us as chaperone. We sat at a small table and ordered American beers and beef burgers and chips. As we ate, Fergus pointed to the spot near the door where an expatriate had been shot dead in some kind of gangster incident, the details of which Fergus was ignorant; and I had my shoes shined by a prosperous looking shoe shine boy who obviously knew the right location for meeting the rich and generous.

"Fergus and I are single," said Carmen, "so we’re allowed to come to places like this."

"It looks relatively respectable," I commented, "apart from the length of the waitress’s skirts."

"The waitresses have respectable legs," said Carmen.

"Not quite Paris catwalk," I commented unkindly. The girls looked as tired as the men at the bar.

"See the balding guy in shorts?" asked Fergus.

"At the bar next the hard-faced Indonesian girl in hot-pants?" I asked.

"That’s Rod," said Fergus. "Super guy. Great squash player. I feel sorry for his wife though. Stuck at home in Pondok Indah. It’s not always easy for the wives."

The next part of our tour involved crossing the road to a pub called Pop Gun. I could say that the decor looked refined, the oil men looked spotless, and the women were safely within their sell-by dates, but I might be lying. In fact the red walls, like the men and girls, were chipped and fading; the place had the simplicity of a Liverpool bus shelter.

"Makes me think of a bar in a film about Saigon," said Fergus, as we sat on bar stools with our backs to the bar.

"Mister," said a lady, as her hand brushed against my appendix scar.

I pushed her away. She was like a creature from scene one of ‘The Scottish Play.’

"She’s no spring-chicken," joked Fergus, who was being poked in the chest by a mini-skirted granny, the sort you see near Milan’s main railway station.

"You chaps enjoying yourselves?" asked Carmen.

"Well, it’s not quite the Sari Pacific," said Fergus. He didn’t look any more comfortable than I did. The plump, balding oil men were wearing T-shirts, trainers and jeans; Fergus had on dark glasses and was wearing shiny black shoes.

"OK," said Carmen after we had had a few sips of beer. "Now to the real night life. No expats apart from us.

"We’re off to Tanjung Priok," added Fergus, "to a little place Carmen was introduced to by some Indonesian student."

So we paid lots of rupiahs to a well-dressed urchin who had been guarding the Kijang and drove towards the docks and the Bintang Disco. On the outside, the disco looked sort of cheap and seedy, with lots of corrugated iron and no sign of any windows. An unsmiling old Chinese woman took our money, only a few rupiahs, and we entered a long, poorly lit room with some plain tables and chairs, and some space to dance. The clientele seemed to be exclusively teenagers and the music was the very latest. It could have been a scout hut in England, but there was a glittery, neon-lit bar, and the predominant colour in the room was black. We ordered large beers and took a seat.

"Is it safe here?" I asked. Something made me feel uneasy; maybe it was because we were near the docks where I imagined there were bound to be hoodlums and cut-throats; maybe it was the fact that we were the only foreigners.

Carmen took my arm and said, "See the smartly dressed gent near the door? He’s army. This place has military connections so it should be safe. The management’s Chinese, as always."

"Always?"

"Well, the place next door’s also Chinese."

"The posher looking place?"

"Yes," said Carmen. "We wouldn’t have got in there. An expat friend’s married to a high up British policeman who advises the local traffic police. He was taken to the place next door by an Indonesian police colonel. Topless girls. We definitely wouldn’t have got in. That sort of thing, topless girls, is very illegal. You have to be well connected."

"The girls here all look Chinese," explained Fergus. "They’ve got Chinese eyes and light skin and they’re expensively dressed. But some of the boys are indigenous Indonesians. They’ve got light chocolate skin like southern Italians and their eyes are different."

"It’s much nicer than the Blok M bars," said Carmen. " More relaxed. People smile more."

"Do you two frequent places like this?" I asked. Fergus, consumer of tinned tuna and American beef burgers, didn’t seem like the sort of person to go ethnic. And I couldn’t imagine Carmen, a woman devoid of make-up or frills, as a night-owl.

"Carmen’s usually at the sports club," said Fergus.

"And so is Fergus," said Carmen. "Although he might be seen occasionally in the Sportsman’s."

"I prefer places like the Hilton," said Fergus.

"The boys seem to be dancing with the boys and the girls with the girls," I noted. "Do the races mix?"

"Mmm," said Carmen. "There are lots of mixed race people, but this place could become like Yugoslavia. My driver hates the Chinese Indonesians. He points to a whole line of shops and businesses and tells me they’re all owned by the Chinese. Who owns the naughty bars and hotels? Usually the Chinese. Who owns the businesses cutting down the rain forests or burning them? Who runs the monopolies like flour? Mostly the Chinese."

"The Chinese don’t own everything," said Fergus. "It gets exaggerated."

"You’re right," said Carmen. "Some people also hate the Javanese because they’re the big bosses politically. In some parts of Indonesia there are wars between villages or kampungs on a regular basis, but it doesn’t get into the papers. People tend to live in tribal groups."

"Will it become like the Congo?" I asked.

"Suharto and the army keep a tight grip," said Carmen. "The army’s everywhere; it’s in every village; it’s in local government; in the cabinet; in the parliament; in the civil service; in the universities; in business. They run lots of businesses. Businesses of every sort. The army won’t want to lose its wealth and power."

"They say the army’s got few soldiers and little money," I said.

"The army’s got about one and a half million para-militaries as helpers," said Carmen. "Then their businesses provide most of their money."

"I visited a police state once," I said, "and couldn’t see any policemen. It all seemed jolly friendly. That was Baby Doc’s Port Au Prince."

"Here it’s subtle," said Carmen. "You can’t see Buru Island, where the political prisoners were sent."

"And they’ve buried the half million or so murdered in ‘65," said Fergus. "They don’t talk about it.

"What’s the music?" I asked, changing the subject.

"They’ve started playing dangdut," said Fergus, who got up and seemed to be moving to the dance floor where some of the teenagers had begun moving their arms and hips in slow, sensuous movements. In fact Fergus went straight to the toilet.

When our beers were finished we moved on to a place called something like ‘Ranamok’, back in the centre of Jakarta. There were lots of big cars parked outside and a long queue consisting of noisy young expats and silent Indonesians with pale, unhealthy faces. As we waited in line to buy our expensive entry tickets, I sniffed the pleasantly warm air; a security guard was smoking a clove cigarette; beef sate was sizzling at a fast-food cart lit by a hissing kerosene lamp; three street kids were seated on the cracked pavement playing dominoes and drinking fruit-jelly drinks.

When at last we got inside the Ranamok Disco, I began to suffer from smoke-and-sweaty-people phobia. The vast room was packed wall to wall and seemed to have only one way-out. There may have been fire-exits. It was just that, in the crush, I couldn’t see them. The rather obscene American music was deafening and finding a seat, or having a conversation, or even dancing, seemed impossible.

"Most of the Indonesians here are for sale," screamed Carmen. At least I think that’s what she said.

"We’re not staying long," shouted Fergus, starting to struggle through the crowds towards the exit.

Next on our itinerary was the J Bar, a small place of smoky blue light and mirrors, which had its fill of slim, doe-eyed, sickly looking teenage girls and fat, grandfatherly, sickly looking expatriates. The atmosphere was of one of chilling yet fascinating misery. The air conditioning was too cold.

"As we came in, " said Fergus, "did you see the man in the suit, by the door? The small, bulky, middle aged guy."

"Yes?" I said, recalling a dark skinned fellow whose eyes had avoided mine.

"That’s said to be the gentleman who carried out the murder in the Gamesman’s Bar," said Carmen.

"And that very thin bloke to the left of the bar is Henry," said Fergus. "Helps run one of the Indonesian banks."

"The one in the expensive suit, talking to the dark-skinned girl?" I asked.

"That’s him," said Fergus. "Poor man discovered dark spots on his skin. Doctor told him it’s skin cancer. His wife’s got cancer now as well."

"His wife is the dark girl?" I asked.

"No," said Fergus.

(I was told that some years later the K Bar was destroyed by an angry mob.)

The nightlife tour was enlightening, but I was relieved when it was all over. And I hadn’t yet met any deserving waifs or strays.

The new term began and I found everyone at the school, myself included, full of boundless energy and smiling enthusiasm. The school was housed in a large red-roofed mansion to which various annexes had been added. There was an open-air swimming pool and gardens coloured by oleander, orchid trees and peacock flowers. The school day was pleasantly short, which allowed me time in the afternoons to prepare lessons and go shopping. I now had an eight-seater Mitsubishi van and a small, thin, middle-aged driver called Mo, a man of few words.

And at weekends there was the Javanese countryside to explore.

"Take me to Bogor," would be my usual command to Mo on a Saturday morning.

Bogor, an hour’s drive from Jakarta, is nulli secundus, second to none. This moist, hillocky, and handsomely shaped little city lies languorously beneath a steep sided volcano, Mount Salak, and is crossed by rivers and canals on either side of which stretch miles of red tiled residences, and gardens overflowing with bougainvillea, hibiscus and jasmine. It could be Southern Europe in the nineteenth century: down a half-seen alley a veiled woman is hanging flimsy garments on a washing-line; fresh young ginger on a kaki lima cart is squeezed to extract its fragrant juice; in a half-hidden cul-de-sac goats nuzzle the haunches of slender kids; gorgeous cocks strut and crow in the backyard of an old Dutch house; schoolgirls in white uniforms walk arm in arm past the deer park and Palladian palace; blue and magenta kites soar high above the scarlet flame trees; in a deep gorge naked boys splash and tumble in the river; birds in gilded cages sing their siren song.

Bogor is full of little districts, or kampungs, which are free of road traffic and full of gossiping housewives, street vendors and hordes of grinning children. At first I was nervous of invading people’s privacy and kept to the main highways. But then I discovered that if I explored the narrower alleys and stared into people’s houses people didn’t seem to mind the intrusion. Maybe they were too polite to object; maybe they hoped I would give them money; maybe they were intrigued by the presence of a funny foreigner; probably in the crowded little neighbourhoods life tended to be communal and there was little expectation of privacy. As in many Third world countries, the children were not shy about following you down the street and beginning a conversation.

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