Life in Transit

7-8 October, Jakarta

I have been in the air, or in airports, for almost exactly 24 hours. The trans-Pacific flight was, true to type for EVA Air, grimly efficient with a Hello Kitty twist. The announcements were curt and to the point and barely intelligible. The food was a notch above what you find on American carriers, as long as you enjoy congee. My neighbors on either side were two old, presumably Taiwanese ladies who spoke no English and kept to themselves, except when for the odd pantomimed request: open a bag of peanuts, break a ginger root in half, that kind of thing. The one to my left had congee for every one of her meals. Congee is one of those ethnic foods that haven’t appeared on the American culinary radar, but I wonder if ten years from now, that will be the next big thing: congee joints on every street corner, where the Thai place/sushi place/Thai-sushi fusion place used to be. Apparently you can live to a ripe old age by eating nothing but congee, but it doesn’t seem to prevent arthritis. I haven’t had a bad congee experience yet, anyway, though not a great one either.

Congee aside, the flight was uneventful and I touched down in Taipei Airport, which I’m beginning to develop a fondness for. It is a very commercial airport, but they’ve put some real effort into giving it a bit of a personality. There are little exhibits about Taiwanese culture near most of the gates, and enough variety in the shops and restaurants to keep you occupied if you have a long layover, even if you don’t plan on eating or buying anything. It’s one of those airports that makes me want to come back and visit its country. I can’t think of any American airports that do the same thing, but Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam is another good example.

On the Taipei-Jakarta flight I sat with three young Indonesian women who were returning from long trips abroad—to Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, and other far-off countries. I never found out exactly what they were doing there, but I suspect they were the kind of guest workers one often hears about in the news, who usually have terrible working conditions. They all seemed very happy to return to Indonesia “my land and water,” as you often hear Indonesians saying, and they did. They had all picked up a bit of Cantonese and Mandarin, and some had learned English and Arabic as well. I was a bit embarrassed that I had forgotten so much Indonesian so quickly after studying it for three years, while the most fluent English speaker among them had had no formal training at all, but a great vocabulary. Between the two of us we carried on a conversation in a mixture of the two languages.

This was the kind of thing I had been missing. As the States got further and further away, I became less and less anxious, and the prospect of navigating my way through Indonesia became more and more pleasant. This even continued through customs and immigration, which went very smoothly. This despite the fact that I’m traveling with a hundred pounds of artifacts—modified rocks, mostly—that my advisor wanted to return to the Balai Arkeologi in Ambon after borrowing them for analysis.

The two heavy, questionable-looking roller bags had chalk marks on them when I picked them up at the baggage claim, a sign that they had already been singled out for further customs inspection. I know some people who carry wet-wipes with them for the purpose of removing these chalk marks; this apparently works quite well. However, I was trying to go by the book, and anyway I had lots of official documents proving that the artifacts were nothing to worry about. “I’m not surprised you’re interested in these bags,” I said to the customs officer, and explained that I was repatriating the artifacts for Indonesia’s cultural heritage. “All rocks, yes?” he said. They must have looked very strange in his x-ray machine. My third bag, full of electronic gizmos, trowels, and knives (gifts for my contacts here) didn’t raise anyone’s eyebrows in the least, though reasonably one might have asked what I needed ten knives and three trowels for. I was through customs in about five minutes, a wonderfully efficient experience.

Before I left, Sandra asked me if Aru had a characteristic smell. I’m still not sure about that, but after landing in Jakarta, I know that most large Indonesian cities have a characteristic smell that is very distinct. Things are always being built and half-built. Jakarta is the pinnacle of this phenomenon, and you can smell it. There is always a humid, floral and vegetal base to it, but the dominant notes are exhaust fumes and burning garbage, plus other industrial smells—ozone from arc-welders, the emissions of setting cement, mortar, brick dust, rubber. In some places clove cigarettes add an Orientalist headiness to the whole mix. I swear I detected this through the crack between the jetway and the airplane door, just as I left the cabin. Right now, this fragrance is unusual enough to be almost pleasant, but that will wear off quickly, if I remember right. I wonder if the sky is always this gray. I have never seen so many people wearing masks before, but it makes sense.

My hotel was a good example of the flailing kind of development that generates Jakarta’s peculiar atmosphere. Hotel FM7 is a very modern and unnavigably vast building, with two restaurants, a bar, a spa, and polished stone floors throughout. Complimentary breakfast here is a huge array of breakfast food from three or four cultures: pastries, American style sausage and eggs, Indonesian fried rice and noodles, and of course Cantonese congee. I stuck to the local fare, which was excellent. There are a huge number of friendly hotel staff, at least four for each guest, all dressed in rather jarring orange and yellow uniforms that perhaps were left over from a Wes Anderson movie.

It’s wonderful, except for being located in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by warehouses and wooden shacks and roads that are always choked with traffic. It is almost impossible to walk anywhere from this hotel, especially if “anywhere” means anywhere interesting. The people driving on the roads outside all look at me like I’m insane. Pedestrians in this neighborhood, especially foreigners, must be treated with suspicion. My brief foray outside the hotel’s enclosure ended after a few minutes of trying to find a way through the motor traffic in either direction. There are hundreds of uniformed policemen or security guards—hard to tell which—directing traffic and patrolling the grounds. Some seem there for the sole purpose of keeping bules away from the embarrassing, unfinished parts of the grounds, though these are visible from my window. I was hoping to pick up some last-minute supplies somewhere nearby, but there are only a few shacks down the road selling snacks and motorbike parts, about the same level of development as in Dobo.

I’m writing this as I prepare to leave for the airport again, en route to Ambon, a place that elicits expressions of shock and concern from the people here. The real adventure, though, will be convincing the Lion Air baggage checkers to put a hundred extra pounds of rocks in the flight’s baggage compartment.

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