Hemlock reports from equatorial parts (1)

Some describe Jakarta as the city of tropical charm and Javanese hospitality; others call it the warm, throbbing heart of the island of paradise. I call it the place that’s like Manila except the police cars don’t have doors missing.

My trip gets off to a good start when, checking in here at the hotel, I casually leave a message with the girl at reception for two remote members of the Hemlock clan who are due in any minute from Yogyakarta. “Hi,” the note says, “In the bar on your left – H.” Tiny, bespectacled, coffee-coloured women with jet-black hair, scarlet lipstick and slightly other-worldly pouts hum and buzz about their business among the air-conditioned marble, carpets and gilt tables and chairs. Outside, beyond the plate glass and the palm trees, the traffic silently crawls through the thick kretak-, urine- and diesel-scented heat.

But reality intrudes into this great International Man of Mystery scenario when, after a joyful reunion, we find ourselves examining with un-Bond-like perturbation the prices in Flanagan’s, the Irish pub in the lobby. The last time I was in Indonesia was in 1998, just after the pogrom that left a thousand dead, Chinatown smouldering and 15,000 Rupiah to one US Dollar. The exchange rate is now half that, which works out at Rp1,000 to HK$1, and one (not very) large Bintang in this fake Hibernian drinking hole is Rp75,000 plus 10% plus 11%. That’s HK$90. A greater outrage than even Lan Kwai Fong or Lee Kuan Yew would ever inflict on thirsty innocents. But what do you expect in a country where the minute you land they charge you US$25 for a no-questions-asked ‘visa on arrival’? No wonder only the most desperate and hopeless Westerners live here typically (it is said) under-achieving financial types condemned to career death by a vindictive head office.

The distant Hemlocks flew in two weeks ago for the wedding of a glamorous Eurasian model cousin to the scion of a seriously wealthy local family. It was a two-day, 2,000-guest affair in which the groom arrived with a police escort to keep the paparazzi at bay and the bride changed costume and gold headdress every couple of hours. Nothing to do with me. Or that’s what I thought. However, as we leave the bar, a small but elegant woman strolls past the sniffer dogs, metal detectors, bag checkers and doormen and enters the hotel accompanied by her two taller and lighter-skinned daughters – the newly-wed and her sister.

Much effusive hugging and distasteful, French-style cheek-pressing ensue, even of the step-nephew-twice-removed-in-law from Hong Kong. We are bundled into transportation with curtains drawn and driven through the choking streets to inspect the happy couple’s prized wedding present, a luxury apartment near the (yes we have a) stock exchange.

After coming through the foyer – decor possibly inspired by the Albania Expo pavilion – and up in the private elevator, we find the love nest full of unpacked furniture and matching gifts. The new couple will move in after some renovations, like a new floor. It has a good view of the usual low-rise expanse, sleepy old government offices and half-finished towers you get around central business districts in unsuccessful economies. The vital statistics: 1,700 sq ft, three bedrooms, nice big open-plan kitchen adjoining lounge, punishment cell with squat toilet for the maid out the back. The answer to your question is Rp5 billion. Knock the three zeros off, and you suddenly realize it might, at a stretch, get you a faded 800-sq ft semi-hovel within walking distance of Shatin station.

We enjoy a pleasant stroll around the pool, the gym/spa/sauna, the library (golf magazines, no books), the kids’ playroom, something called the teens’ hang-out and the barbecue area. Apart from a few attendants there is no-one to be seen. The mother explains it to me. “Indonesians don’t like the sun, so they don’t swim. And they don’t like barbecues because you have to do it yourself. They like to be served.” She grins. She then adds that most of the units are bought as investments, and the owners only drop in from time to time, maybe for an afternoon at the weekend. The groom’s family all have one each.

The new residential block has a private tunnel connecting it to the gleaming mall/office complex across the road. But we decide to slum it and walk over. A security guard strides out ahead of us on the black-and-white striped pedestrian crossing and tries to get vehicles to stop and give us right of way, with partial success. In the deli-supermarket, 100 grams of French cheese costs a day’s wages for the average staff.

One of those coconut-and-pandan things

The matriarch holds court

After dinner, we go our separate ways. Across from the hotel, I decide to stock up my room’s ruinous and, anyway, under-provisioned mini-bar at a grimy local supermarket. As I pay one of the hijab-wearing checkout ladies for my (Rp13,500 a can) six-pack of Ankor beer, the theme from Exodus starts playing over the PA.

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3 Responses to Hemlock reports from equatorial parts (1)

  1. Historian says:

    Very evocative, especially the first bit. You should do more travel stuff.

  2. Biographer says:

    So the child has been handed over to the orphanage, the payoffs arranged and Hemlock has another lucky escape.

    TIP: Look for the kite mark on the condom box next time. It’s not much of a test but it’s all we have to go on.

  3. gweipo says:

    No wonder only the most desperate and hopeless Westerners live here – typically (it is said) under-achieving financial types condemned to career death by a vindictive head office.

    Oh yes, yes, yes … I know a couple of them.
    The last was so hopeless he didn’t even have the noes to keep on the good side of his driver, who then proceeded to tell the whole town about his extra curricula activities

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