Jakarta: a world inside a city

As soon as I get to Jakarta I’m struck by the orderly manner in which all the travellers, tourists and residents, queue for their cabs. It takes a while but eventually everything is sorted. The tidiness of the people reflects also in the way they drive. There is traffic because there are a lot of cars, but differently to other places, where traffic is often so brutal, so boiling that it becomes tangible, nearly as if it was another identity (me, the taxi driver and traffic) here it’s tidy, composed, refrigerated by aircon.

The city changes when seen from the window of a cab and from the terrance of a flat on the eleventh floor of a building, evidently. But the difference is so profound that the city seems to split into two different cities.

I remember that a few years ago, in Istambul, my flight had been canceled because a snow storm had hit the city. All the passengers, shivering and stranded, were set up in hotels scattered around the city, waiting for the snow to melt in order to re-scatter them around the world. We were only given our hand luggage to carry with us and I, headed to Ethiopia, I only had pretty yet rather light clothes, unable to shield me from the pungent cold outside. Fortunately I was wearing my inseparable All Stars and this allowed me to explore the city a little bit. From the window of my room on the eighth or ninth floor I watched the crowded streets and mentally made a map of how far I could go before freezing to death. In Jakarta this is not possible. Here the smog is so thick to give the sky a constant nuance that can vary between white and grey but which never really goes away. It confounds the shape of things, blurring their outlines and melting one building with the next. Most of all the smog is a convenient blanket that is spread over the lower city, over what lives, breathes and moves below the buildings. What lies below is poor, is ugly, it’s the past. And it’s much better off covered.

Jakarta is like a mushroom bed, like a wood, even if it cannot be seen from the eleventh floor of a building, it does have a charming underbelly, relatively tidy and with a fascinating coexistence of new and old: nasi goreng stalls and mosques, banks and acacia trees, sports cars and bikes.

The ubiquitous presence of shopping malls is a little intimidating, they are worlds separated from the world, shining and fresh, with huge arched ceilings, fake frescoes and glass elevators. They untie their chain of lights, colours, expensive and less expensive goods and smeels that remind you of an American movie: MacDonald’s, KFC, Starbucks. But Indonesia has oil, with oil comes the money and with the money the desperate search for status, and what represents success better than the resemblance with the shiny world on the cover of magazines?

And sadly I find in Jakarta an amplification of what I saw in India: a fast growing economy which relegates the local culture (sometimes brutal, violent, often shaped by colonialism, but still culture) to receed until it enventually reaches self destruction. In the new world, a sci-fi world which looks like one of Azimov’s books, there is no space for nostalgia, you run, faster than everyone else if you can, because who looks back is lost: he will be sucked back in that world from which everyone tries to escape.

I arrive here from Bali, where the tradition and the local culture have resisted radical change with a tender determination, offering their best to whoever arrived but without ever giving themselves away. In Jakarta on the other hand, melting pot of cultures and hopes, it seems that no one remembers where they come from and, at the same time, they also seem unsure of where they are going. While all around the city grows in height and cuts out more lower floors by the day.

Inside the Bellezza Suites, a residential complex in the city centre, there is a small mall. An uninterrupted chain of shops, beauty parlours, gyms, supermarkets and several restaurants. You can never leave the building, if you wish to, and still see an interesting portion of the Jakarta élite, for an Italian coffee, a nice sushi or for an entrecote at Chez Josette. It’s nice to be international, well travelled, without ever having to go out into the humid and milky city. Chez Josette is possibly the best example: the checkers table cloths, the wine bottles used as chandeliers, photos of Paris. Everything brings the visitor back to an indea of Europe, of France, confused and yet reassuring, here everything responds to what the Jakarta élite consider chic. Jakarta is the clients and the world is the chicken quiche lorraine they eat: you chew, you swallow, you digest and there you have the experience!

For this fast pace world, a world used to fast forwarding conversations, books, life, Chez Josette is the perfect place to pin a small flag on the world map without bothering with trips, visas and jet lag. And so yeah, Santé and Vive la France!

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