Monday, November 10, 2008

Jakarta Memories

So about three weeks ago, I took a bit of time off and flew down to Jakarta, Indonesia for a short respite from the stresses of working and adapting to life in KL. I got to see my good friend, Dendy, and meet some new people as well. It was a cheap, short flight -- about $60 round-trip, and just under two hours' flying time. This first picture is the view from Dendy's 21st-floor apartment on an uncommonly clear haze-free day in Jakarta. His building, like some in the States, skips the 13th floor. In KL, it's more typical for the 4th floor to be skipped (one of my friend's building goes 3-3A-5...) because in Chinese culture, 4 is the number of death... bad luck, indeed.

Besides the wonderful people and fantastic foods of Indonesia, probably the best thing about visiting that country is that it's so incredibly inexpensive by U.S. standards. A couple of my most enduring memories from my five days there this time were both made even better by their low cost. On the night I arrived, Dendy picked me up at the airport and we stopped by his apartment building and picked up his roommate, Arya, then headed to this fantastic wine bar in a fancy hotel. There were dozens of bins of wine, each marked with its price. and you simply wander through the "aisles" of bins and chose your wine. So we picked out a bottle (for a mere 220,000 rupiahs, about US$22), then found our seats by the window on these huge, plush sofas and the sommelier came over a short time later with our selection, a Spanish shiraz-tempranillo blend, and three red wine glasses.

We talked and enjoyed our wine, and before long, three other people came over and joined us. One was this beautiful girl named Kyla, a mixed-race American who had been living in Jakarta for five years, but was leaving on Saturday to return to the States, so she was living it up in her last few days in Indonesia. Needless to say, she was happily buzzed and proceeded to drape herself all over me for awhile, then left to go dance (on a nearby table), then came back and cozied up with Arya. Her friends were sitting with us by then, having their own bottle of wine, and we just had a good time socializing. After polishing off the first bottle, Dendy and I went wine shopping again and selected a late-harvest sauvignon blanc, since he had never tried a late-harvest wine before. It was only about Rp. 200,000, a steal for that type of wine. It was served to us with new, appropriate stemware, and we stayed there just soaking up the elegant atmosphere and enjoying ourselves until about 1 a.m.

The second really memorable thing was a couple of days later. Dendy and I went to a really posh sushi restaurant at the Crowne Plaza hotel. A word about this -- in the U.S., Crowne Plaza isn't a super-premium brand. It's basically a really nice Holiday Inn (they're in fact owned by the same company). They're quite nice, but no Waldorf Astoria or Four Seasons. In Asia, however, Crowne Plazas are extremely upscale. All the ones I've seen (Singapore, Jakarta, KL) are high four-star or five-star properties. So eating at a sushi restaurant in such a nice place was a treat. It was an all-you-can-eat lunch for some ridiculous price... I can't remember, but it was about $9.00 I believe. It wasn't a buffet, we actually ordered from menus, but they kept bringing us food as long as we kept ordering things. We stayed there for a good two hours and ate all kinds of great sushi and drank glass after glass of iced green tea.

Apart from that, it was a lot of shopping and eating. Dendy owns his own business, so as such, he has a personal driver (labor is very cheap in Indonesia), so that he can use that time conducting business -- making phone calls, sending e-mails from his mobile phone, etc. -- rather than sitting in Jakarta's horrific traffic jams. For us, it was nice, because his driver would pick us up and drop us off at the various malls and restaurants, then Dendy would call him when we were ready for him to fetch us. Most of the larger malls in Jakarta have little waiting areas for drivers to park and wait. It was definitely nice being chauffeured around like that! Here's another peek at some of the food I ate... I can't remember what some of it's called, but it's mostly fried foods, veggies and spices. The soup was similar to the bakso I eat on the beach in Bali (meatballs, fried tofu, wontons, and greens in a spicy, flavorful broth).

This final food picture is a dish called es kacang. "Kacang" (KA-chong) is one of those marvelous Indonesian words that means different things in different contexts. Usually, it means "peanut," but there are no peanuts whatsoever in es kacang. In this dish, it's referring to the beans you see -- we'd probably call them red beans or kidney beans. They're in a soupy mix of water, coconut milk, chips of ice, and various jellies (the green and red stuff). Sounds gross, doesn't it? But it's surprisingly tasty and very refreshing!

One of the curious things about Indonesian life in the large cities is all the activity that takes place at traffic lights. Most of the larger intersections are canvassed by myriad vendors, selling the day's newspapers, snacks, cold drinks, etc., just wandering amidst the sea of vehicles. It's also common to see very young children walking around in the traffic, hoping to get loose pocket change from motorists.

So that's a quick snapshot of my little excursion to Jakarta. It's not the vacation destination of choice for most people, nor is it my favorite place, but it's genuine Indonesia, for sure. My next visit to Indonesia will likely be next month, when I scoot down to Bali for a few days. It will be nice not having to sit on an airplane for 25 hours to get there!

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