The first journey wholly in the latter half of 2014 began on July 8, way before dawn, up to New York Kennedy and over the pole on Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong, more than 8,000 miles and 12 time zones. Happily, a longtime colleague at Cathay kindly got me upgraded to business class, which was sensational. The service was great, flight attendants among the best anywhere. My westbound transpacific approach is only to sleep a couple of hours, which meant I had time to watch five movies. We arrived HKG at 1:30 on Wednesday afternoon, but I still had more than 2,000 miles to my destination, Jakarta. Lucked out with another big seat on the next flight, and arrived in Indonesia’s capital at 8:00 pm.
It was their presidential election day, which offered both a good conversation starter when Talking to Strangers (not just that night, but for days after), and meant that there was little of the infamous traffic that chokes the huge metropolis. The taxi driver was the first exemplar of Indonesian friendliness; he spoke pretty good English, and we had a nice chat about his four children, his vote earlier in the day (I did not ask and he did not offer his choice), Ramadan fasting (he was hungry), and his 12-year stint behind the wheel. The two young front-desk clerks at the Holiday Inn Express downtown extended the welcome – on first impression, a very hospitable place – and I asked them to show me their inked little fingers, evidence that they too had voted. I snapped a picture, only later realizing that one held up one inked finger and the other proudly displayed two. In this case, the V-for-victory gesture meant she supported the reform candidate, Mr. Joko, who was thought to be the winner (in the world’s fourth-most-populous country, islands sprinkled across 3,000 miles of water, it would take until July 22 for the official results).
The next morning, The New York Times included this gem: “Katherina Setiadi, a 95-year-old who grew up under Dutch colonial rule in Indonesia, said she voted for Mr. Joko because she felt he was a good man. ‘There’s so much energy today compared to’ Mr. Suharto’s regime, said Ms. Setiadi, sitting in a wheelchair and accompanied by family members. ‘You just feel it – feel the democracy.’” It was a good time to be in country.
My time-zone approach worked perfectly: I was asleep by 9:30 and did not wake until 5:30. Headed to the gym for 10 miles on a bike, then down to breakfast: fried rice with dried fish, chicken soto (soup), and a bowl of muesli for East-West balance. Back in my room, I discovered an oops: two days earlier, I packed my bag in some haste, and forgot the pair of dress shoes for my client meetings. Failure recovery was relatively fast: thanks to the Internet, I located a Rockport (my favorite brand, totally comfy for all the walking I do when on the road) store in a shopping mall a few kilometers away, which would give the Transport Geek a first opportunity to use the city’s varied public transport. I walked a few hundred meters to the Sudirman commuter-train station and bought a chipcard ticket.
Putting my wallet away, I heard a voice, in great English, “excuse me, sir, but what is AirLearn?” Fahd had spotted the laminated business card on my backpack, and this launched a nice T-t-S (by the way, an essay on the joy of T-t-S was just published, in the July issue of American Way, the inflight magazine of American Airlines, here). I described my little firm and my airline background, and he said he had lived in the U.S. for 12 years, learned to fly, loved aviation, but didn’t think he could find a pilot job. We chatted a bit more, and I peeled off, down the stairs to the train platform and a short ride to the Tebet station. From there, it was a mile walk along Jalan Kh. Abdullah Syafe’i, through the ordinary landscapes that I always find interesting: past little shops, a couple of banks, and a lot of small garages for repairing some autos, but mostly the thousands of motorcycles that are solid – and noisy – evidence of the nation’s rapidly-rising living standards. I also passed a number of small restaurants, and if they were open the workers looked glum, for Ramadan is bad for daytime business.
The Kota Kasablanka mall, frigid air, gleaming floors, global brands, was further proof of growing affluence, though the place was pretty empty. I found the Rockport store, and a pair of dress loafers that fit my bunioned paws. I asked the friendly young clerk to show me his proof-I-voted inked finger, and he held up two fingers for my iPhone camera. Nice!
Retraced my steps back to the station. On the return train, a middle-aged man spotted me looking at the route map and asked if I needed help. Another nice T-t-S with a fellow who lived in Sydney, Australia, for 15 years. He, too, had voted the day before. So nice to meet people who do not take democracy for granted. I changed clothes, slipped on my new shoes, and set off on Transjakarta, a set of bus lines that operate on (more or less) dedicated lanes, bypassing some but not all traffic jams. Hopped off and walked several blocks, then realized I would be late for my client meeting if I kept on foot, so I hailed an ojek, unlicensed motorcycle “taxis.” My first ride was a good introduction: fast but slightly scary, especially when the driver slipped between lanes of stopped cars, with a few inches of clearance on each side.
I entered the posh Bodobudur Hotel, met my client Betti, and had a good chat about the one-day seminar that she had organized for two days hence. She was impressed by my public-transport experiences in just 16 hours; yes, she recognized the word “geek,” and I then told her I was in fact a Transport Geek. She laughed. I headed back to the busway and a 30-cent ride back to the hotel. Grabbed a short siesta.
At about 5:30, I headed back to Sudirman station. Rush hour, jammed platforms, packed trains. I fell into the pushed wave of commuters flowing onto a train. This was the definition of crowded, tighter than I had ever experienced – even in Tokyo, in India. When I got off one stop east in Manggarai, I still had my wallet, in my buttoned back pocket, but someone managed to steal my iPhone in a front pocket. Well, shit. I thought perhaps I left it in the hotel room, but when I returned it was not there. Nope. Well, shit, but there was nothing to do but go to the Apple website, report it stolen (the “Find my iPhone” app only works if the phone is on), then suspend AT&T service.
No reason to mope, it was a replaceable thing, and the reality is that there have only been two thefts in more than 40 years of international travel – some travelers’ checks in Munich in 1973 (replaced on the spot), and a big ripoff, March 2006, my briefcase (laptop, camera, car keys) on a Dutch train. That’s a pretty good run.
I headed downstairs, jumped on an ojek and headed to dinner. Even with the street address and district name the driver did not know where he was going (the iPhone and GPS map would have helped). A two-mile ride took 40 minutes, circling, stopping to ask ten other drivers and strangers on the street (but unlike U.S. men he did stop to ask, and frequently). In the end, I spotted the street sign for Jalan Teuku Cik Di Tiro 4 and ten seconds later the restaurant, Lara Djonggrang. He looked unhappy when I gave him the agreed fare; I was not interested in paying for a sightseeing ride, though the district we traversed and traversed again, Menteng, was pleasant, full of large old houses and embassies.
Lara Djonggrang was, from the first moment, outstanding. A warm greeting from the staff, my name and “welcome” painted in white on a broad green leaf at my table, smiles all around. The menu was like a book, and it took awhile to get through it. I was not in a hurry, so I chose course by course. Appetizer was otak-otak, marinated ground fish in an egg batter; then a squid satay from Sulawesi; main course was a Balinese dish, nasi kajongan wayan, steamed rice with six small dishes of slow-cooked duck, grilled vegetables, seafood salad, grilled coconut, and more; and dessert was pisang ramee, a banana and raisin crepe, with coconut and palm sugar syrup. When you’re eating alone you normally are in and out, but I stayed two hours, not just enjoying the food but admiring the museum-like décor – painting, sculpture, folk art. I wished I had my iPhone to snap pictures; it was a nice reminder always to store images in your brain, too. Lara Djonggrang was a sensational experience. Hopped back on an ojek and zoomed home. In the elevator I had a nice, albeit brief, conversation with a couple of Indonesians in their 30s; can’t recall how the topic of the elections came up, but they quickly made it clear they were elated with the result, and the language they used “zeitgeist,” for instance, suggested they were academics. Wished that T-t-S could have continued!
Slept well again, up before dawn, down to the gym, then out the door for a day of touring. The major hassle of the iPhone ripoff was not having a city map with GPS “where you are” dot, so I had to revert to the old paper map, and the free version was not very good – too many ads and not enough street detail, but I jotted down my destinations on small piece of paper (for the ojek drivers), and set off, first on a Transjakarta bus north to the main railway station, Kota, then onto the first motorbike to Petak Sembilan, a street market. I love Third World markets, and this one was a gem, vendors hawking live cobras, turtles, and chickens, skinned frogs, flowers, fruits and vegetables. A little further on, the Jin de Yuan Buddhist temple – the area seemed mainly Chinese, who form a minority community in Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries – plus old-school rickshaws, ladies gossiping in the shade, the works.
Next stop was Sunda Kelapa, the old harbor. This was for sure not the container port, but a narrow channel lined with old freighters with hulls of massive wooden beams and a house-like superstructure in the rear. They ran the range from less rickety to more rickety, but I am not an expert in marine science! An old man beckoned, pointing to his narrow green boat in the murky water below. “Ride?” he asked. Why not, I reckoned. We bargained to the equivalent of $4.32, and set off. The motor putt-putted us into the channel, and about a half-mile to open water, where we turned around. I don’t think his vessel had an Indonesian Coast Guard certificate, nor even a lifebuoy, but people who have lived in an archipelago for centuries know their way around the water. The boats were transport for basic goods: guys were loading bags of cement, carboys of chemicals, stacks of air conditioners. When not working, crewmembers waved, hung their wash on drying lines, showered on deck behind a little privacy gate. It was fascinating.
Back on land, it was a little hard to find an ojek at the port gate. Bicycle “taxi” guys beckoned, and even though I was only traveling a mile or so they looked pretty slow. Soon a fellow with a brightly-painted machine showed up, and I hopped on. A few blocks from my destination, Kota railway station, I spotted some interesting buildings from the Dutch Colonial era. When we arrived, the driver, the most honest one to date (in terms of fare), posed for a photo, and I threaded my way across busy streets, back toward the stuff that caught my eye. I was getting good at crossing jammed thoroughfares; the skill required the same nerve as riding an ojek, plus both eye contact with oncoming drivers and slower moves than I normally make!
According to the map, I was at Taman Fatahillah, a historic square and center of the original Dutch Colonial administration. I walked into the Museum Wayang, described in guidebooks as having a solid collection of traditional Indonesian puppets. Here was one of the finest T-t-S experiences in a long time. It was pure serendip that the ticket seller, Daniel Roy, also happened to be from a family of puppeteers – both makers and performers – who date to the 10th Century! As I was putting away my wallet and folding the bulky map, he asked where I was from. “Ah, Washington,” he replied, “we were there on a 38-day tour of the U.S. some years ago.” Daniel spent the next hour showing me around the museum, describing characters of the stories. Here was the Indonesian equivalent of Romeo and Juliet, there Gacot Kaca, the “Superman of Indonesia,” and Bima, the dragon-snake man. The total character set totaled nearly 6,000!
Daniel explained how the puppets were made, the larger ones with highly durable wood that will last more than 300 years without repainting; shadow puppets made with buffalo skin, also durable for hundreds of years, intricate patterns cut from the hide, a single mistake ruining the work. He also told about some of the performances, like one that could last up to 10 hours, with as many as 250 different puppets – and a minimum of 120, all presented by just a few people, who could not pause for a bathroom or water break. Whoa! In addition to the U.S. tour, Daniel had visited Paris to accept a UNESCO award, and took a marathon 5.5-month trip across Africa, using puppets to dramatize the need for smaller families. The building was originally a Dutch Reformed Church, and had gone through several incarnations. After we finished the museum tour, we walked a block to his workshop, and he explained that he teaches puppet-making four times a week. I bought a couple of small shadow puppets – how could I not? It was a remarkable experience.
To prevent damage to the puppets, I returned to the hotel, and the three-mile ride south took an hour. Traffic had ground to a halt because of a huge demonstration near the national monument, a couple of thousand people protesting Israeli military action in the Gaza. Palestinian flags, chants, something being burned (likely an effigy of Binyamin Netanyahu). The delay made me cranky, but was a reminder that our (read: Bush, Obama and other U.S. leaders) unwillingness to broker a durable peace and a viable nation-state in Palestine reverberates around the world, and especially in the huge swath of earth that is Muslim.
I finally arrived, washed my face, dropped the goods, and headed out for a late lunch, then a small shopping trip – I told Robin I would buy Dylan and Carson a couple of batik headscarves, so I rode escalators through Sarinah, a department store, and was able to find them without much trouble. Check and done. It was hot, and I contemplated a siesta, but the “must tour” urge prevailed, and I hopped an ojek toward what the Lonely Planet guide website described as a nice collection of buildings from the colonial era. Indeed they were, but they were behind fences with sentries at checkpoints, so that mission failed. I ambled back toward the Transjakarta line. The protest had moved, but was still disrupting traffic.
At six I walked just a few blocks to Seribu Rasa, another highly-regarded Indonesian restaurant, but, drat, I did not make a reservation and they were full. In retrospect, I should have persisted, or asked to sit at the bar, but I left, and more or less wandered for 30 minutes, up a busy street looking for something, anything, local. I was hot and cranky and hungry and thirsty, and I’m not proud to report that I ate a McDonald’s chicken sandwich with cheese, fries, and a Coke, and a Mango frappe for dessert. Well, it was cheap and filling. I was worn out, and needed to be on form the next day, so was asleep way early. Cities in the developing world wear you out!
Saturday dawned, finally time to stand and deliver. Put on my suit, ate a good breakfast, and rode a taxi – not an ojek – back to the Borobudur. Met Betti and a number of her colleagues, as well as my co-presenter, Professor Paul Dempsey (my McGill law school host, who invited me onto the project). The day went quickly, and well. When we finished at 5:30, the group invited Paul and me to join them for Iftar, the big meal to break the daytime fast. Was back at the hotel a bit after seven. I considered going out for some Saturday night fun, but was plumb wore out.
Up Sunday morning at 5:30, quick breakfast and out the door. Jakarta Sunday morning was traffic-free, and even with pelting rain was at the airport in about a half-hour. Checked in, lucked out with another upgrade to Cathay Pacific business class, and hopped on a 777 back to Hong Kong. The purser, Lucy Kessler, recognized me from the southbound flight three days earlier. We got to know each other quite well on the flight, chatting off and on for an hour, maybe more. A couple of small-world stories: first, her husband grew up in Richardson, Texas (our hometown for 20 years); and second, she knew my Cathay Pacific colleague Charlie. She showed me a bunch of pictures on her phone: her favorite Jakarta restaurant (she was from there), her daughter Samantha, and eye-popping decorated cakes that she made. She had serious talent as a baker, and was a sensational purser to boot. I spent a bit of time in the galley, a part of the plane I remember fondly from my inflight days, and got to know some of the rest of the crew. It was a really nice ride.
Arrived Hong Kong at 2:45, and instead of flying on, I hopped on the super-speedy Airport Express train, then a free shuttle to my hotel (breaking up the journey, even a little, made sense). Checked in, washed my face, and zipped back out. First activity, a ride on the slow but funky double-decker tram west to Kennedy Town. The top deck of the tram is a great vantage point for street life and the changing urban landscape, especially the gradual replacement of 1950s and ‘60s high-rises with slick new ones. You pass fancy shops with global brands and 50 feet later a traditional store, like one selling only nuts, or herbal medicines. Bought a can of Coke at Kennedy Town and hopped back on the tram, taking photos in the splendid late-afternoon light.
Back in the district called Central a protest was in progress, streets blocked for a sit-down of hundreds of immigrant temporary workers, all women, unhappy about changes to local labor laws, insurance cost, and other woes. It was impossible to conceive of such an event across the border, or in other parts of Asia that rely on cheap female labor to cook, clean, and look after children. And it was a reminder that Hong Kong’s democratic traditions – under some threat from Beijing – are not to be taken for granted. I happened upon the protest by accident, because my destination were the two bronze lions, named Stitt and Stephen, that stand guard at the entry to the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, HSBC. Petting the big cats, and snapping a photo, is also part of my H.K. formula.
At 5:30 I met a new guy, Adam Cowburn, with the aviation consultancy SH&E/ICF. We were introduced by email last year and indeed worked a bit on a couple of proposals (that were not successful). The original plan was dinner with him and his wife, but a last-minute meeting diverted him to Kuala Lumpur, so we settled on tea in the flashy IFC Mall just above the Airport Express train station, so he could zip out. We had a good, quick yak, he peeled off, and I headed down to the water and onto the famous old Star Ferry for the short ride across the bay to Kowloon.
I had been moving quickly, and it was time to relax, so I walked two blocks east to the venerable and posh Peninsula Hotel. I hadn’t been there since my last visit a decade earlier. I literally chilled, because the A/C in the lobby bar was working well. Enjoyed a Guinness Stout and some free nuts and chips (included in the $12 beer), jotted a few journal notes that I otherwise would have tapped on my iPhone. Nicely relaxing. As someone – okay, perhaps an old fuddy-duddy – who believes in at least modest rules of attire, I cheered on the lobby maitre d’, who dispatched a couple of young European men in shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops. Nice that the Peninsula upholds the old standards. I could not hear what the slob was saying when he left, but he looked very unhappy.
Next stop, according to formula, was a couple of blocks north on Nathan Road, the Chungking Mansions (built 1961), a seedy high-rise warren of cheap rooms, eateries, money exchanges. The building façade was less crumbly than I recall, but the ground floor was much as I remember, a United Nations-like mix of working people – Arabs, Africans, Chinese, a few Western tourists slumming it. I bought a beer from a young black man with dreadlocks and a shirt that said “Bob Marley.” Sat down in his tiny back room, next to two Arab guys drinking fruit juice spiked with a small bottle of rum and a large smiling fellow from Benin, whom I engaged briefly about the World Cup. It was a nice yin-yang experience. As I was enjoying my $1.10 San Miguel (way cheaper than the Peninsula!) I recalled passages from one of Jo Nesbø’s novels; his protagonist, Norwegian detective-cop Harry Hole, had spent time on the upper floors, and quite possibly had drunk a beer in my chair.
Hopped the train, not the boat, back across the water (er, under it), and walked a block to Yung Kee, the traditional Cantonese restaurant where Adam, his wife, and I were to dine. It was getting a little late, so I opted for a lighter meal. First course was fried tofu with bean sprouts (the poached pig’s aorta caught my eye, but), and a main of fried noodles with shredded pork. The Chinese families nearby were all enjoying themselves hugely. Walked two blocks to the hotel, and clocked out. I contemplated setting the alarm for 3 AM, start time for the World Cup final, but Zzzzzzzs had priority.
Got up Monday morning, checked the score (Germany 1, Argentina 0), ate breakfast, and left for the airport with my passport still in the room safe. Yet another snafu this trip – when it rains, it pours! No excuse for dumbness, but ever since the iPhone departed, I had been extra-vigilant. Brenda, the kindly helper at Cathay Pacific’s ticket desk, got me on the standby list for Chicago flight, and I returned to the city and the hotel to fetch my document. Aieeeeeeeee!
Not only did I clear the standby list, but I once again got upgraded to business class, four for four. God bless Cathay Pacific. By rights, the passport mistake should have put me in the penalty box, between two tubby people in economy class, smoking section (well, okay, they don’t allow smoking, but you get the idea!). Had a great ride to O’Hare, landing at 2:00 (crossing the dateline, it was still Monday), and arrived Washington at 7. It was great to be home. A few snafus along the way, mostly my fault, but a wonderful journey.