Friday, January 2, 2009

Indonesia on the Street

Jogjakarta, Java, Indonesia

Erin and I have just arrived in Jogjakarta and are staying in an actual hotel room, not on the street. Thank you, thank you, we do deserve your applause. The Indonesian Christmas/New Year’s rush is abating and things are returning to normal — meaning that we can now drift around without ever making plans or thinking anything out more than a day in advance, and find all the facilities we need available to us. We even were able to get train tickets to Jakarta today, not on economy class, nor even on business class, but on a prestigious air-conditioned express Executive Class train.

In the last couple of days, Erin and I visited 1100+ year-old temples at Prambanan:

And Borobudur:

There isn’t much to say about those places that these photos won’t render inadequate. We had a sober New Year’s Eve in Borobudur in a hotel full of sober Muslims who were partying in that special, desperate way that sober people have of partying. We were equally sober, but at least we had the good sense to sleep and not to try to dance sober.

I actually have no idea if any of the sober people danced; we were in bed before 10:00 because we were getting up at 5:30.

That night in Borobudur brought us through our New Year’s exile and the next day we were able to come back into the city. Jogjakarta is a fantastic city, and we’re both happy to have a couple of days to just hang out here and enjoy the streets. (As I sit here typing, Erin is also writing a post on her web-log at about Indonesian streets — it’s nowhere near as good as the post you're currently reading, but it’s probably still not bad. Feel free to check it out.)

Many of you know that I’m a bit of a nut for city planning. I won’t harp on the subject for too long, because I know how my planning conversations with my brother can bore all bystanders until their tongues hang out and their eyes roll back in their heads. I’m going to take three paragraphs to talk about it, and then I promise I’ll go back to talking about Indonesia like a normal human being.

In the past week I’ve seen a very instructive contrast between Solo and Jogjakarta, which to my mind fully vindicate Vancouver’s downtown streetscape policies (which conform to the ideas of new urbanism).

Many of Solo’s streets are too wide, have buildings set back too far from the streets, have blank walls facing the street far too often, and have huge spaces between the access points at different buildings and complexes. The result was that many of Solo’s streets were dead and boring as all hell. If it wasn’t for all of the cart-borne vendors filling in the spaces, even the main streets would have had tumbleweeds blowing down them.

Jogjakarta’s streets, on the other hand, are a chaotic riot of beautiful, vibrant urban life. I’m sure there was very little planning involved in making the streets like this; the city began with a solid framework of streets of varying width, most of them narrow, and frequent enough that there are few large blocks. Then a developing-world entrepreneurial class with little regard for the needs of vehicular traffic was unleashed on it and allowed to fill it in at whatever densities the local non-car-owning population considered economical. The streets contain no dead space; they are densely populated, and they contain hundreds small of small businesses in narrow shop fronts and hundreds more smaller businesses run out of carts and rolling down the street on the backs of bikes.

Okay, I’m done blathering.

Erin and I spent a good couple of hours wandering around today, first through the streets and back lanes of Sosrowijayan (some of which are less than 2 meters wide) and then down Jalan Malioboro, Jogjakarta’s main shopping street. Between the intense riot of activity and interactions with the friendly locals, we had a thoroughly entertaining time. Sure, the locals are often friendly because they’re trying to sell you something and they’re not always up-front about what it is they’re selling, but they’re good sports and they can usually take no for an answer.

Jalan Malioboro is one of the best streets I’ve ever been on in my life, although it’s fairly useless as a transportation artery. The west side of the street is a wall of narrow shop fronts, mostly containing small businesses retailing all of the bricabrac and whathaveyou of everyday Indonesian life. Immediately to the east of the shop fronts is a narrow channel of pedestrian traffic, crammed with people shopping and walking, but not getting anywhere particularly quickly. To the east of them, occupying a great deal of sidewalk space that the pedestrians would love to be using, are small merchants selling more bricabrac and whathaveyou from tables.

I bought a belt from one sidewalk vendor for $4.00, marked down from $8.50, because I’m a foreigner (yeah, right). He then tried to convince us to visit his family’s marionette manufactory just to look, not to buy.

To the east of the tables is a lane of traffic, choked with becaks (bicycle taxis), horse-drawn carriages, the odd motorcycle and the few braver pedestrians who actually want to get somewhere. Separated from this flow of traffic by a narrow median is the one-way two-lane main road for petroleum-powered vehicles, most of which aren’t going anywhere particularly quickly. I’m not sure what was to the east of that; it was hard to see. It’s fair to guess that in most places it was a mirror image of what is on the west side of the road. For at least part of the road, a relatively pedestrian-accessable shopping mall stretched down the west side, but Jalan Malioboro carried vibrantly along in spite of it. It’s too strong a street to be ruined by one shopping mall.

There are no parking lots for cars on Jalan Malioboro. I can’t remember seeing anywhere whatsoever to park a car. The street does fine anyway.

As far as I can tell, the two best things you can do in an Indonesian street are to ride in a becak, and to eat bakso, but never at the same time. You can get a becak ride clear across Jogjakarta for about $2.00 if you speak 50 words of Indonesian like I do, and if you have exactly my level of stubbornness. I’m sure that more persistent tourists are able to get it for half the price I can, and I’m even surer that the locals are paying a quarter of what I pay.

Even at $2.00, it’s good entertainment value for money. Becak seats are always slightly too narrow to fit both mine and Erin’s asses comfortably; we are wide-assed people. I’ve seen as many as four Indonesians share one, but only when at least one of them is a child and another is a particularly skinny teen, and the four have no boundaries of personal space between one another. If you can cram yourselves into one, the discomfort is worth the ride.

Becaks move through the city at a leisurely pace, but they are considerably quicker than walking, even when the man pedaling the becak weighs a third as much as his cargo, as is always the case when Erin and I are riding. This is largely because becaks have their own rules of the road and don’t have to wait to cross streets like pedestrians do. Becak drivers have a firm belief that they have the right of way over absolutely everyone else, regardless of the color of the traffic lights. Other drivers may not agree with this belief, but Indonesians drivers are reluctant to murder the 1 to 5 people riding in each becak, so the question is resolved by fiat in the becak drivers’ favour.

There is no better way to see an Indonesian city than in a becak. They move slowly enough that you can see all the details, but quickly enough that you will eventually get to where you’re going. More importantly, you don’t have to constantly watch for who might run you over, like you do when walking; you can just sit back and take in the scenery and trust the becak driver and whatever divine beings you believe in to worry about the traffic.

Bakso is another Indonesian urban delight that takes a fair amount of faith to enjoy. The moving or semi-stationary carts that sell the stuff have no running water, leaving it an open question as to how they cleaned your bowl and silverware after the last diner. It’s well worth your while to put your trust in your divine beings and your immune system and dig in, though.

Bakso is assembled before your eyes out of yellow noodles, pieces of pre-fried tofu, balls of daging sapi (cow meat), and broth ladled out of the cart’s broth bucket. You then add crushed chilis to taste. A healthy portion of bakso (i.e. one small enough that it can’t overwhelm your immune system) will run you about sixty cents. If you have a bowl for lunch, you’ll be fucking starving by the time six o’clock rolls around, as I am now.

So I’m going to go get supper. I end this web-log post with my remaining bakso photos, accompanied by five minutes of whale song.

(Please imagine five minutes of whale song while looking at the following photos.)


  1. 1100+ year-old temples?! Shit! Those fuckers sure are on a building spree there... no wonder there was a building material shortage last year.

  2. You are a dink and you know it.