Sunday, February 19, 2017

A Midweek Trip to Jakarta

As I mentioned in my previous post, last week I had to go to Jakarta for work.  I had been to Bali before, which is the playground of the rich and famous and an entirely different world from the capital city of this huge, sprawling country.  (Side note: many people do not realize how big this country is.  Did you know that Indonesia is the world's fourth most populous country and third largest democracy in the world?  Yeah, third largest democracy, after India and the United States.  Think about that for a second!)

I was a little bit worried about a few things on this trip, mainly: (1) Zika and (2) security/safety, as I would mostly be traveling by myself.  I was also braced for bad traffic (not a huge issue but I can get very car sick, which doesn't help when I have to be sharp and really "on" for meetings) and sad that I was going to miss spending Valentine's Day with Michael.

All these concerns aside, I was lucky to be in Jakarta during a very interesting time - the gubernatorial elections were taking place on February 15th.  This was a public holiday so that all of the Indonesian citizens would be able to vote.  I am guessing that the traffic is so bad that in order to ensure that the city gets the required turnout, they need to give people the day off from work.  I've read that this was a hotly contested election because it was seen as a litmus test for Indonesia's pluralist politics, where some of the candidates had interactions with fundamentalist Islamic groups who believe that non-Muslims should not hold high office in Indonesia.  The winner of the first round was a Chinese Christian, Ahok, who is the current governor.  Ahok will face off against the runner-up, Anies, in a second round of elections in April. 

The trouble with traveling to Indonesia is that the flights are all at pretty inconvenient times.  The flight is about 4.5 to 5 hours, and you can depart first thing in the morning, at mid-afternoon around 3:30, or late night.  And returning, your options are the same.  This has the practical effect of taking out nearly two days on the front and back end of your trip.

As with most developing countries, Indonesia's infrastructure is sorely lacking.  It may not be as noticeable in small towns or vacation resorts, but the cumulative effect becomes very obvious in a metropolis.  In Jakarta, the traffic is notoriously bad - it reminded me a lot of Manila (where it once took 35 minutes for my friend and I to traverse the distance between two terminals at the airport).  The city has a huge issue with flooding, as all of the canals are very old and in desperate need of repair.  There is also a lot of garbage and pollution which has clogged the pipes and sewers, leading further to the flooding and traffic congestion, and likely also public health issues.  The internet can be slow - at night, often my connection would blink in and out, so that I would get batches of emails at a time.  Any emails with large attachments (a common occurrence for a lawyer!) would struggle to come through.

Upon arrival, I was met at the airport gate by a member of my hotel concierge, who escorted me to the Visa on Arrival counter where I purchased a visa, and then to the immigration counter.  From there, I emerged into the humid Jakarta night, only to be greeted immediately by my friendly driver who was waiting.  I don't know if it was the time of day that I arrived or what, but there were virtually no lines and I was in and out of the airport from gate to car in about 12 minutes.

From there, it was an arduous ride from the airport to the hotel, which took nearly an hour (at many points of the commute we were sitting in standstill, bumper to bumper traffic, usually where multiple lanes of cars were trying to merge).  After that, I was pretty much in my hotel, in a hotel car, in an office, or in a hotel car, the rest of the trip (well, except for one somewhat memorable and interesting dinner, which I will get to in a bit)!  The traffic patterns are somewhat predictable to the locals, depending on time of day and direction you're headed, but of course it is never certain.  The times vary astronomically - what was an hour long ride heading into the city from the airport at night took half the time heading out of the city two days later during the day.  When we went to dinner, it was a 45 to 60 minute drive heading to the restaurant, and a 15 minute drive back.  That's like L.A.!

I stayed at the Keraton at the Plaza, which had huge rooms (one of my colleagues said it was bigger than his apartment in Hong Kong), very high ceilings and a very large bathroom.  My room itself was very pretty and comfortable, however, the hotel had some funny quirks.

There was one set of elevators for residents which you cannot access, but confusingly looks like the main elevators to get down to the lobby.  I stood there for a few moments anxiously pushing the elevator button and freaking out a bit before I went exploring.

The lobby also has arguably the most confusing layout.  Instead of keeping it open, they divided the elevator lobby from another hallway and cut the lobby into two sides, so that every time you emerged you were never really sure which way to turn.  There was also only two elevators, which seemed confusingly sparse for a hotel of this size and lobby space.  Oh well.

They did have security controls (you cannot access any other floor without a room key, and every car entering the hotel grounds is accosted by a few guards who take down the driver's ID and check the trunk of the car) and a 24/7 concierge that could be reached via telephone, email, text, whatsapp, wechat and line messages when you are out and about.  That security and accessibility both reassured and worried me - obviously they felt it necessary to protect their guests as much as possible!  Also, the car checks seemed very much like form over substance - I suppose it is better to have the checks than not, but if everyone knows that it is just the trunk that is checked, wouldn't you just put your weapons somewhere else...
As you can see, the room was very nice. When I woke up in the morning, I pushed some buttons to lift my black out blinds, to reveal... this.   Yep.  Not a very pretty skyline, is it?
 The hotel abutted a construction site and a murky canal.  Lovely!
My meetings were fine - I got the chance to go to the Indonesia Stock Exchange and experience the ubiquitous metal detectors.  I was mistaken for Indonesian here and at the airport, which is kind of funny.  As I've mentioned before, in Southeast Asia I often get mistaken for being from the country I'm currently in - so far it has happened in Malaysia, Indonesia, Laos and the Philippines. 

Anyway, on to my crazy Valentine's Day dinner!  I went to a teppanyaki restaurant with some colleagues and clients, where we were put in a private room and were each provided with a bib.
The food was decent (we got a variety of seafood and beef - none of which were sourced from Indonesia) and I thoroughly enjoyed my red bean ice cream.  Afterwards, we went to a club called BATS, which is located in the lower level of the Shangri-la hotel.

Before I knew it, a bottle of vodka had been purchased, we had descended into a cavernous bar underground and I found myself sitting in a booth with four other men, with a pulsating disco beat (followed by a live cover band), watching the both seedy and upscale Indonesian night scene unfurl before our eyes.  Picture a dimly lit underground space with a circular bar, booths and bar tables lined along the walls, and a dance floor on the side, filled with a sea of young, nubile Asian women, scantily clad in their alluring best, chatting it up among themselves in the hopes of attracting attention, or coyly touching/dancing/flirting/conversing with a few men, and that about sums it up.  The men are of all sizes, age and ethnicities, but there is no doubt what the parties are here to achieve.  I find it all so distasteful, as much for the stereotypes that these scenes perpetuate as for the atmosphere of objective calculation that pervades this modern meat market.  This is where I spent my Valentine's Day. 

The rest of the trip was much more uneventful, thankfully.  At the airport, after checking in at the counter, I was ushered into the lounge (before going through security or passing through immigration).  At the lounge entrance, I was asked to hand over my passport and boarding pass - apparently, as a service for business or first class members, they will process your paperwork with immigration for you.  This struck me as absolutely crazy.  First, I don't like handing over my essential travel document in a country where I estimate their chances of losing my passport to be no less than 72%.  Second, isn't the whole point of immigration so that the officials can stare you in the eye and determine whether you are who you say you are and that you do not pose any threat to national security?

The lounge was very crowded and dimly lit.  I took these pictures after most of the lounge had emptied out.  As you can see, the lounge services practically every airline that flies out of Jakarta.

I kept going back to the front desk to ask about the status of my passport.  Each time I was told, "Oh it's not ready yet ma'am," even though no one actually checked any list or papers.  After an hour had passed, I suspected that something was amiss.  As I predicted, they could not find me in the sea of people and had to page me over their loudspeakers, asking me to please approach the front desk.  Anyone with any common sense could tell you that taking everybody's passport and then leaving them to wander in this huge, crowded, dimly lit room over the course of an hour, is a serious risk.

Once out of the lounge, the airport terminal is very bright and pretty.  You go through one set of metal detectors and scans here, and then one more very thorough check at the actual gate itself.  Combined with the initial scan machine at the entrance of the airport, you go through three separate checks.
And there you have it, my first trip to Jakarta!  My post may have come across as very frustrated or negative about the city, but I point them out more because those are the points that are so different from my every day life.  I found the people that I interacted with to be very kind, and in each instance clearly to be doing the best that they can under the circumstances.  I can't say that I am looking forward to my next trip to Jakarta, however, I am very much interested in returning to Indonesia and seeing more beyond the narrow confines that my work trips allow me to encounter.

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