SHOPPING IN JAKARTA (2015)

‘Indonesia’ – a name that will immediately evoke images of the exotic.  An archipelago characterised by colour: blue seas, white sands, lush green palms and dazzling yellows of Durian flesh alongside the ravishing reds of the ‘rambutan’ (it means ‘hairy fruit’). Not to mention, of course, the ‘Angkots’, which are painted in bright purples, blues and oranges and zip dozens of huddled passengers wearing colourful hijabs round dusty streets whilst blaring out that same old D’Bagindas album from 2010 through speakers that crackle under the pressure of the driver’s desired volume. Sun-faded knick-kacks, accumulated over decades of travel, dance around on the dashboard, never failing to resist gravity with each sharp turn the vehicle makes.

…And the ominous dark grey skies that hang over the nation’s capital, Jakarta, as I sit alone inside a fast-food outlet at Arion Mall in the east of the city.  Outside, the rain hammers down on traffic that will choke up the streets for hours to come, but the inevitable arrangement of horns thankfully cannot be heard from the refuge provided by this Mall.  Instead, I am heckled by a quartet of teenage girls who marvel at the colour of my skin.  Tourists don’t really come to these parts.  I am here visiting friends who grew up in neighbourhoods not far from here, and if it weren’t for them, I doubt I would have come here either.

The young girls ask me a series of questions and take it in turns to pose with me in a picture. Picture after picture.  The forced smile slowly dwindling into complete lack of expression with each flash from a Blackberry emblazoned with emoji stickers.  I have humoured this contact for a while, but now I really just want to be finishing the half-eaten plate of fried chicken that sits before me.  The girls ask for my Instagram username and when I eventually return to a place with WiFi I’ll suddenly see that I have four new followers.  They’ll upload the photos from our meeting and decorate the captions with #foreigner.

Before I leave the Mall, I decide that it’s time to buy some Batik garments.  I have always liked Batik, with its bright, bold colours and patterns.  The clothes are always so unusual, and so unmistakably representative of the country I have come to love since completing a voluntary internship in 2010. An assistant with a huge smile approaches me.  He is wearing a waistcoat and looks like he could be about to break into song.  “Hello Miiiiss, can I help you?”

I immediately reply in basic and broken yet better-than-nothing Bahasa Indonesian that, “I like Batik.  I look for Batik”

The assistant’s smile extends further and he begins to rifle through the collections passing me every single item of Batik to try on.  He’s a natural salesman who no doubt has Rupiahs flashing in his eyes as I strenuously attempt to voice my approval of each piece using a very limited vocabulary of “Saya suka” (“I like”) or “Bagus” (“good”).  Having trialled around a dozen or so garments, I eventually emerge from the changing rooms with the couple of dresses I have selected to go on and buy.  The assistant eagerly waits by the door, enthused to hear about how I got on.  He is pleased with the items I’ve chosen, but is also keen that I reconsider my decision not to buy a surprisingly rather dreadful-looking black and red piece.  Whilst watching him redundantly point out all of its merits another dress catches my eye, and it looks like the size I see on display would fit me perfectly.  I go and take a closer look.

“Errr maybe not this dress for you Miiiiiss as we only have this size, and errr you have fat”

For a second I take offence though it’s hard to continue to do so when it’s clear that none was meant.  What amuses me most is the way in which a steadily growing rapport could suddenly cease due to a moment of lingual naivety. I smile at my new friend – my new attentive stylist – as he goes on to initiate the payment process before we bid one another Selamat Tinggal (goodbye) forever. Who could’ve guessed that this inconsequential scene, which lasted only 20 minutes and involved a man whose name I can’t even remember, nor probably never even knew in the first place, would’ve stayed in mind in the way it has all these years later? What is it about the characters we meet when travelling? Is it something to do with the language barriers, and how they enable us to view people in different ways? The smiles, the looks, the way in which any verbal exchange ends up holding considerably more weight because it took more effort? Maybe it’s to do with the scope for brutal honesty that is actually somewhat refreshing, for it is harder to maintain tact when you can only speak a few words of the language.

I go out into the rain and join the traffic on the Transjakarta busway back to my friend’s house.  A five minute journey takes half an hour due to the clogged nature of the traffic.  Equatorial rule dictates that daylight is limited, and so it’s already dark outside.  It’s September 2015 and this is worlds away from the Indonesian experience of 2010, where I taught English to orphans in the beachside city of Padang, West Sumatra. Padang hosted a landscape much more reminiscent of the opening paragraph to this piece, but it doesn’t matter, because these real, rugged, unfiltered experiences are all just a part of the world I love. A world that hides beneath a map. A world that doesn’t make the guide-books because it’s not always deemed interesting enough, but a world that’s real and which leaves a permanent impression in the mind of a 29 year old (back then!) woman who originally set off only to eat some fried chicken in order to pass the time whilst waiting for a friend to finish work.

Song of the Day: D’Bagindas – Apa Yang Terjadi

The most apt choice. It would feel impossible not to hear this song at least five times a day whilst out and about in Indonesia, impressively during each of my visits there (2010, 2012 and 2015).

Four Airports

Gatwick airport

Not many kinds of building will evoke emotions quite like an airport.

Primarily, airports, to me, equate to long-distance travel, and that is always a good thing, right?

Of course.  You cannot travel to the other side of the world without visiting an airport first, but instead of always wanting to celebrate their existence there’s something about them that seems so wrenching to me when they come to mind.

I’ve noticed that my emotions never feel truly balanced on each and any occasion I’m in an airport, and I think it’s that – moreso than the widely maligned concept of queues and customs – that makes my stomach feel so heavy when I think about them.   There’s always a hello or a goodbye involved.  There’s always distance involved.

I do think there is a massive difference in one’s perception of the airport depending on whether they are travelling alone or with others.  When you’re travelling alone, you have no other option but to spectate and truly absorb what’s going on around you, whereas amongst company the trajectory of thought is decided for you by your companions – conversations about what so and so said or whether or not we’ve packed enough soap.  The naked intensity of the airport is tranquilised by the presence of familiar faces and discussions reflecting day-to-day life…but you don’t have that if you’re alone.

The following observations stem from my experiences of travelling solo.

We start with airport number 1.  Our origin, gateway to a dream.  Upon entrance our minds are full of the half a dozen things we are sure we must have forgotten to pack.  We work out whereabouts we’re meant to stand and then we queue.  We say sayonara to our luggage and use our newly free hands to go and  grab a coffee.  We wait. We watch.  We look at all of the other people in the airport and wonder where they’re going and for what reason.  The airport is a microcosm of diversity and we are surrounded by skins of all shades, hear voices of all accents and see whole varieties of dress.  We are mesmerised by it.  We remember how big the world is and smile to ourselves.

The excitement of impending departure causes us to be restless, and we pin our eyes to the Departure boards dreading the sudden emergence of bright red text next to the name of our destination which will signify that there is a problem with our flight.

Things become more real once we are motioned to the gate.  We familiarise with the departure lounge and finally allow the feeling of excitement to pulsate through every single cell in our body.  We think about all of the memorable things we’re going to be doing in the days ahead.  New places to discover.  New people to meet.  New feelings to feel.

The second airport.  “Finally!!” We arrive.  We are jet-lagged.  Turbulence has left us unable to hear a thing and the bright lights which we saw mapping out the city below us have left us feeling romanticised and our hearts beating faster.  This is it.  We are here.  Exiting the plane, sounds become muffled.  Everything seems so much more luminous.  We are tired, but we are excited.  Our mouths are dry and we look haggard but the thrill of being somewhere new is shuffling us towards border control.

Hello there, stern-faced man at the barriers.  The first person I will speak to in this new country.  Here is my passport, there is my nut on the page so that you can verify it’s me – adhering to regulations by looking completely blank and expressionless. No hair over the face.  No headwear.  No glasses.  You look at me intensely to check it’s really me, and then you motion me onward, over to baggage reclaim, where I wait.  For an eternity.  Dreading that mine will be the last case to come out, or that it won’t come out at all.

Just like the panic in Jakarta July 2012, when that hand-drawn sign saying ‘End’ appeared on the conveyer belt but my suitcase was nowhere to be seen.  There was panicked jumping onto the belt to expediate my journey to the other side of the room where I thought I could see my bag, security chastising me for this, but it didn’t matter because I was happy to have located my suitcase, unrecognisable from losing it’s multi-coloured strap I put there for identity purposes.  Thank Heavens, they’ll get their presents, and I have enough underwear to last the trip.

And then: We leave.  Out into the open air.  The foreign air.  The foreign smells.  The foreign noises.
That wonderful feeling of not knowing where you are… and it is a wonderful feeling despite not sounding so, because it ensures that everything that is about to happen to us will be a complete surprise.  We bathe in the blood-rush and this new wave of excitement will be both the fuel and the guide that our jet-lagged bodies need to reach the hotel,  The adventure begins.

These first two airports of the journey will represent the best memories and emotions of the lot.

But then there’s the return, a journey we will eventually have to make, when the airport takes on a completely new context, and emanates a completely different vibe.  Airport number three is the worst one. We turn up tired and the building is no longer a gateway to new dreams and memories, but an arduous formality that stinks of cleaning fluids and concentrated clusters of fast-food outlets.  But we don’t really notice any of that because our thoughts and emotions have been sidetracked by a feeling of hollowness.  A feeling as though we are missing something.  A feeling as though we have left something remarkable behind.  It could be a person.  It could be a place.  It could be an over-friendly street-cat that you passed each morning on your way to the market, or it could be the wistful way that the man selling roti by the side of the road looked at you in hope of your custom as he sat alongside a dozen others selling the same thing.  Whatever it is, you can almost find yourself searching for it in your handbag, because it feels like it should be with you.

Airport number three brings out the worst in us.  It was a hard goodbye to people who are no longer by our sides.  This is the worst thing about travelling alone.  At least when you’re with
other people, you can commiserate one another and reminisce the trip.  When you’re alone and you’ve passed through those doors, that’s it.  You have a long-haul journey ahead of you
in which you will speak to nobody… bar maybe the flight attendant when you confirm you want the chicken option, or the person next to you when you need to pass them in order to get to the toilet.  That’s it.

I have to say… sometimes the goodbyes have been so hard to do that it’s made a small part of me wonder if things would’ve been easier had I not gone at all.  Airports can make that moment so much worse.
The harsh bright lights shining over your sole suitcase.
The doors, heavy and damning.
New friends waving… and then disappearing, gone, from view.
Sitting having a coffee alone trying to use up the last of your foreign notes and the tears are welling up, but you’re more exposed when you’re crying alone.  You cannot bury your head into the shoulder of a friend.  Strangers stare at you with that expression of awkward sympathy.

When the plane takes off you look at the labyrinth-of-a-city below and wonder if the things you will always remember from that place will remember you too, or whether or not you’ll
be forgotten just as soon as the next visitor touches down.  You wonder if you’ll ever set foot on those streets again and possibly find yourself promising to yourself that you will.  A coping mechanism that will make this departure a little easier to bear.  You get your camera out from your handbag and browse through all the photos you took just to keep the flame of this trip burning for that little bit longer.

After what seems like an eternity of floating around in the troposphere, we eventually reach airport number four.  How you feel about that one depends on how long you’ve been away.  If it’s been a considerable amount of time, airport number four is the emblem of a homecoming enriched with pride and excitement.  Visions attached to the warming thoughts of roast dinners, hot water, English pubs and timber-framed buildings with uneven floorboards.  The smell of cloves and potpourri.  Family and friends.

However, if your absence has been much shorter term, we tend to attach thoughts of all the negative parts about the homeland.  Rain.  Dark Monday evenings in Winter.  A conservative society in which saying hello to stranger as you pass them on the street is considered abnormal or overbearing.  Documentaries about our binge-drinking culture.  Formalities.
We still love home, of course, but it lacks that element of surprise.  We know it too well.  Too often it slips into the rhythm of repetitive routine, because we allow it to.

And the fourth airport is the damning rubber stamp to this realisation.

airport2

A Bit of This, A Bit of That

Around the World in 80+ Pages

In recent months, I have developed a new addiction – travel writing books.  My logic is that if my circumstances are such that I cannot actively be travelling right now then I may as well be doing the next best thing – reading about it.

Since my addiction began, towards the tale end of Autumn, I have visited the 7 most polluted places in the world with Andrew Blackwell, cycled from Mongolia to Vietnam with Erika Warmbrunn, driven around China with Peter Hessler, lived in a Javanese village with Andrew Beatty, and am currently whizzing around Jamaica with Ian Thomson.  Up next – Barbara Demick will be covertly burrowing me through to North Korea before I then head off to the Amazon with John Gimlette.  I am enjoying every moment of my trip.

I would seriously recommend this pastime to anybody else who misses the thrill of being surrounded by the unfamiliar but for whatever reason, can’t be doing it right now.  It’s comparatively inexpensive, you don’t need any vaccinations nor to worry about having enough deet in your repellant, and you won’t be in any danger whatsoever.

Whilst it doesn’t quite equate to the real thing, it’s still comforting to know that you can get off the beaten track and learn about the world without getting out of bed, and that’s precisely what I plan on doing with the remainder of my afternoon.
The Point When It All Makes Sense

Hitting the UK headlines this week was a rather shocking insinuation – politicians are capable of telling lies.  Who would have thought so?  But it’s true, former cabinet minister Chris Huhne was telling porky-pies about his ex-wife driving his car when it was caught speeding a decade ago.

Generally, anything to do with politics tends to go over my head somewhat (mainly because I have a hard time believing anything I read on the matter), but there were two things about this particular story which were of interest to me.

The first was that Huhne’s cowardice fits in perfectly well with the fact that his name, in German, roughly translates as ‘chicken’.  Ja, genau!

The second is the feeling that I’ve seen his ex-wife, Vicky Pryce, somewhere before.  No – it wasn’t when she was ramping up points whilst zipping along the M11 in 2003, it was somewhere else I’m sure…

fabiocapello

N’ah yes, that’s it.  As I recall, she was desperate for points then, too.

Interestingly, when Chris Huhne resigned from the cabinet over the allegations (which were initially made last year), backing came from the somewhat surprising source of none other than Fabio Capello:

“I spoke to the Prime Minister and said that in my opinion someone should not be punished until it is official that he has deliberately conspired with his ex-wife to knowingly deceive the authorities.”  –  Well, you’re the expert on the situation afterall, insider info and all that jazz.

It’s all conspiracy I tell thee!

To Give Up Something, or to Give Up on Trying to Decide What That Something Is?

Last year was the first time I had given something up for the entire duration of Lent.  For 40 days and 40 nights, my stomach was a crisp, chocolate and cider-free zone, and I did feel a lot better for it.  The weighing scales were grateful too, and calculating my weight was a slightly less painful experience for them than usual.

Lent begins again on Wednesday and I am still wondering what I’d like to give up this year.  To repeat the abstinence of the 3C’s mentioned above feels slightly lacking in imagination, and I’m not so sure that crisps are thaaaaaaat fattening, and cider is something I rarely drink anymore anyway.

But what other guilty pleasures do I enjoy yet over-consume?  Wine is one option, but I do believe that a glass of wine every now and then can actually be quite beneficial.  So my resolution is to give up on buying any item of food or drink that isn’t necessary (to the new Sainsburys Local by the cricket ground – you have a lot of fat to answer for, buddy!).  And finally, I’m going to give up on being lazy when it comes to physical exercise.  A brisk 30-minute power-walk each and every day.  Watch this space.

Bring it on Lent, I’m ready and waiting for ya!

Song of the Day:  Ice Choir – Teletrips

I liked this artist the moment I read the name.  ‘Ice Choir‘.  Sounds like exactly the sort of music you want to listen to on a Sunday afternoon in February, when it’s raining and snowing outside, the sky is white, and the windows are spattered with rain and snowflakes.  This song lives up to the image evoked by the name – chilled, soothing and mysterious.  Enjoy.