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Trip 20 -- Asia, Cold and Hot

Part 5: How to get home from Blok M (Indonesia)

The heat hit me when the plane door opened: Jakarta was about 70 degrees warmer than Harbin.

When I first visited Jakarta, in 1998, it was the worst city I'd ever been to from a pedestrian's perspective: almost no sidewalks or crossing signals -- even marked crossings were almost nonexistent, not that drivers would have abided by them. Public transportation was limited to slow buses bursting at the windows with passengers. The idea of a metro system was a faint dream. I stayed in a certain part of the city on my first night simply because I could not figure out how to cross the street in front of the bus station.

By my second visit, in 2012, things had improved somewhat. The extensive Transjakarta busway system had been installed, with numbered routes that made getting around much easier. To view a cross-section of Jakarta, one could ride line 1 from the Dutch port of Kota in the north, through Chinatown and past the food stalls of Mangga Besar, along the broad park containing the national monument, and through the central business district, to the nightlife around the Blok M terminus. Even people not taking a bus benefited, because overpasses connecting both sides of busy streets had been built to allow people to access the busway stations in the middle. But enforcement was lax: Sometimes cars would enter the bus-only lanes, and the buses would be subject to the traffic snarls. And the bustling mile-long retail area that flanked Satrio Road had only one hard-to-find pedestrian crossing.

Jakarta continued improving its transportation, but it missed a few key components. By February 2019 the airport rail link had started operating, to reduce traffic on the highways. But to reach the rail link from the terminals required a trip on the separate Skytrain, which didn't operate very often, chugged along slowly, and had a schedule completely uncoordinated with the rail link. I had just missed a Skytrain, and when I arrived at the rail link, I had just missed that, too. The rail link went through a weird switchback operation halfway into town, and when it finally reached the terminus, it was an awkward ten-minute walk to the nearest busway stop, Tosari ICBC.

Tosari ICBC was five stops from my destination, Polda Metro Jaya, which was opposite the access driveway to the Sultan hotel. But the bus blew right past it. The stop had been temporarily decommissioned, along with its pedestrian bridge, as part of the planning for the metro system, which wouldn't open for another month. Instead, I had to alight at Gelora Bung Karno, adding six minutes to the trip any time I wanted to go anywhere. That stop had no corresponding crossover; every minute and a half, pedestrians had 11 seconds to cross the maddeningly busy Sudirman Road. If I wanted to cross Sudirman to get to the lively restaurants across from the Sultan, I had to detour all the way to this stop and wait for the brief signal phase.

My purpose in Jakarta was to be the musical director of a 70-student musical-theatre workshop, teaching with our American acting director and choreographer. For five days, we would prepare the students to present three 20-minute musicals and a finale. Our days were long but fulfilling, almost ten hours of rehearsal each day with a brief lunch. The students had ages ranging from nine to 32, and they were enthusiastic and hard-working, studying nightly at home after each intense session. A car picked us up at the Sultan each morning; our rehearsals were not much more than a mile away as the crow flies, but because of Jakarta's traffic patterns it took almost ten minutes just to get to the other side of Sudirman Road, and then a few more to pass all those fun-looking restaurants and arrive at the studio.

With days full, my time to explore Jakarta was limited to evenings. The complexes along the busy roads near the Sultan were full of international restaurants and bars that reflected the area's focus on business and finance. I tried the local version of Uobei, the sushi-on-a-track restaurant I'd lunched at in Tokyo, and I heard a band at a German beer hall. Once our host took us to a trendy teppanyaki restaurant, and once she arranged for a private room at a nightclub to celebrate her birthday. Stepping from the sticky tropical heat into a swank air-conditioned establishment became the custom.

For a more traditional ambience I took the bus back up toward the rail link. I walked through a long, narrow street and arrived at a restaurant called Warung MJS. I couldn't resist ordering too much from the platters on display: stir-fried greens, fish in a banana leaf, fish in a tangy sauce, tofu soup, tempeh, and rice. And fresh fruit juices: avocado and kedondong (ambarella or June plum). I sampled maybe a tenth of what was on offer and would have been happy to try different dishes there every day for a week.

Blok M, at the southern end of the busway, was known not just for its nightlife but also for a cluster of Japanese restaurants. I had yakitori and sushi at the sleek Tori Ichi, and then I went to one of the bars on a side road just off the station. Many of these bars are known for their ladies for hire, and I paid a young woman named Fifi $5 for the privilege of having her beat me in a game of pool. Then I tried to get on the bus back to the Sultan.

That was no easy task, because the main gates at Blok M were closed late at night. As far as I could tell, the protocol after hours was to pay at the turnstile, then walk back up the bus exit and climb up onto the platform -- sort of like lifting oneself off of a subway track. On my second visit to Blok M, after doing that, I discovered that no buses were running. There were dozens of buses being driven through the lane, but they all claimed to be out of service.

A similarly stranded couple offered to call the Indonesian equivalent of Uber and take me in their car. We exited the station, and they asked where I was going. I didn't want them to detour up the driveway to the Sultan, and I don't like telling people where I'm staying in any case. Based on the direction I estimated we'd approach along the main road, I felt confident stating my destination as Polda Metro Jaya, that closed busway stop near the hotel's access road. We'd approach on the correct side of Sudirman, and I wouldn't have to cross.

As we waited for the car, a bus full of passengers came out of the station.

My plan was foiled when the car pulled up across Sudirman some distance from where I expected to be, in a location I didn't recognize. There was, apparently and quite reasonably, a thing called Polda Metro Jaya after which the station called Polda Metro Jaya was named, and the driver, quite understandably, thought that someone stating his destination as Polda Metro Jaya wanted to go to the thing and not the station named for it. Embarrassed, I made my actual destination clear, and they took me there. The couple refused to let me pay.

Our five-day workshop culminated in a presentation that was preceded by a traditional ceremony. Our stage manager led a prayer, and a cone-shaped mound of yellow rice called a tumpeng was revealed. The cone was surrounded by hard-boiled eggs, chicken chunks, corn fritters, and other small bites. Our director sliced off the top of the cone to get us under way; the platter would be eaten after the performance.

That night was my one chance to stay out late and sleep in. I took the bus up to Mangga Besar, a lively street with outdoor food stalls and exotica in cages such as live snakes. There are also bars and clubs in the area, though their entrances aren't always obvious.

One fun-sounding place was mislocated on Google Maps but locals pointed me in the right direction. Its entrance looked like a Roman temple and it was lit up in purple like one of the ice buildings in Harbin. I paid the entrance fee upstairs and walked down to the disco area. The music was screamingly loud and crazily frenetic, with a sung melody that seemed tonally Arabic soaring above a shrill string section, a rapid-fire keyboard pattern, and insistent off-beat drums. I'd never heard anything like it, in a club or otherwise, and I found it refreshingly compelling.

The room was so dark that I couldn't see any other people or any evidence of a dance floor. Way in the distance were strobe lights. I found the bar, and a waiter seated me. I ordered a beer, and he said, "Would you like an ecstasy pill with that?"

After several minutes my eyes adjusted and I realized I wasn't the only one there. More people were coming in, and I watched where they were headed. Not thirty feet away were crowded tables and stools around a sunken dance floor. I walked toward the party and found an open chair next to a guy who looked to be about 16 years old. Having a conversation was impossible, so it was a couple of hours of beers and dancing. The crowd was friendly and welcoming and seemed to have arrived in groups. To my delight, getting the bus at Mangga Besar did not involve scrambling up a wall.

I had the day free before flying back to New York, and I took the bus to Jakarta's amusement park and beach at Ancol. It was a Monday and therefore quiet. At a seafood restaurant by the water, I picked a live coconut crab out of a tank. The species is the world's largest land-dwelling crab, and it can rip open a coconut, climb trees, and kill small mammals. Whether its meat is really an aphrodisiac is open to discussion, but I had a very good bus ride back to the Sultan.

By chance I would have an excuse to be in Jakarta briefly a few months later, at the end of August. The metro was then running, but they had not yet enabled the functionality of stored-value tickets. Every time I wanted to ride it I had to pay a deposit for a fare card, plus the fare itself, and then sell the card back to the system at the end of the trip. As usual, the city had made progress but not quite gotten the details right.

Every time I'm in Jakarta it intrigues me further. It wasn't one of my favorite cities back in 1998, but it has grown on me, largely due to its transit improvements. Each neighborhood has something different; each alley beckons; each food cart invites a look. The city is immense and complex, and it would take years to begin to understand it all. Maybe after my first dozen trips, I'll scratch the surface.

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