September 21 / 23 – 24, 2010
There are more Muslims in Indonesia than in the entire Arabian Peninsula, where Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are located. In fact, Indonesia is the country with the largest Muslim population in the world. At Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, I was initially confused to see men washing their feet in a public restroom. Then I realized right beside the washroom was a musholla, an Islamic prayer room; and the act was part of their ritual ablution. Indeed, I had landed in a Muslim country.
Other than the ubiquitous musholla, there were not as many mosques and Arabesque architecture as I had expected, especially in Central Java where massive Hindu and Buddhist monuments were the major attractions. Flying back to Jakarta, I expected to witness more of the austere and conservative society that I had vaguely associated with Muslim culture. Instead, I found Dubai.
Just to kill time before our flight out, Donna and I asked the cabbie to drop us at the best mall in town. That turned out to be Plaza Indonesia, a high-end shopping complex that houses big-ticket international brands: Prada, Gucci, Jimmy Choo to name a few – a mall after Carrie Bradshaw’s fashion-victim heart. Like Carrie, women here did not cover their hair with veils; they wore them styled and free. They worked their outfits in similar fashion. The place was a posh and modern oasis – Dubai, if you will – in the capital city of this developing country. Even the parking area was rather snooty and nouveau riche.
We hopped over to Grand Indonesia, its similarly posh twin across the street. Donna, a veritable mallrat, checked out Seibu, a Japanese department store I didn’t even know about, while I made a beeline for Batik Keris, a traditional-product chain store. Granted, their batik pieces were a tad overpriced, but rummaging through the racks revealed some good deals. I found a green gossamer batik scarf perfect for my equally dainty mother. Indonesian fashion designer, Priyo Octaviano, hinted that green would be the color of 2011. Mom would be Indonesian chic for a full year! Down at the basement supermarket, I bought packs of Java coffee and tea to the tune of Java Jive, which I was singing under my breath (“I love coffee, I love tea, I love the Java jive and it loves me….”).
The sweetest discovery I had made in souvenir-shopping, though, was not at the mall, but at a convenience store near Hotel Menteng, my stale-smelling but reasonably-priced and conveniently-located digs. It was a box of durian mooncake for my Dad, who had a sweet tooth (he managed a bite despite the loss of appetite from chemotherapy). Hand it to the Chinese to think of introducing mooncakes to Indonesia and using local fruits as filling. Durian actually tempered the sweetness of mooncake.
Malls and their globalized air could get stuffy; I had to come up for local air. Outside, I only bargained for some of Jakarta’s pollution (the smell of smog stuck on my clothes after that short promenade), but I also got a warm tropical welcome from Tugu Selamat Datang (Welcome Monument) at the Hotel Indonesia Roundabout. The monument’s two bronze figures – male and female with arms outstretched in the wind – were built by Indonesia’s first president, Soekarno, in the early 60s, probably as part of a campaign to depict his country’s openness to foreign visitors and modernization. The efforts had paid off on both counts; the rotunda was now surrounded by five-star hotels, corporate high-rises, and sprawling high-end malls. Jakarta was keeping up with the Joneses in the ASEAN.
Later in the evening, I met Ahlyn, my Jakarta-based friend, and her husband, Joe, for dinner, despite the hour-long drive through city traffic. She more than made up for another friend who originally offered to host us but moved to Singapore without prior notice. Donna and I were actually jettisoned in Jakarta, but that’s another story – one that I’m not inclined to tell.
There was hardly any indication I was in a Muslim country – not while touring temples in Jogjakarta and milling at the mall in Jakarta. However, one morning I was roused from sleep at 4:00 by a chant, the Islamic call to prayer. It was not particularly loud, more like a consistent drone. Considering that I was a deep sleeper, it was an effective wake-up call. More significantly, it was a solemn reminder that despite Indonesia’s Hindu and Buddhist heritage and its increasingly modernized (read: Westernized) capital city, it was at its soul a Muslim country – the largest one at that.
Now a warning: I had an unfortunate experience at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport – which was, for the most part, my fault. Despite my OC self, I fumbled for my missing departure card. Apparently, the Indonesian immigration officer had not stapled it on my passport upon my arrival, as was the practice in other countries I had visited. I turned my suitcase inside out, and searched all nooks and crannies – nada.
I had to eat humble pie and do a sheepish mea culpa. How embarrassing – the Transcendental Tourist had lost his departure card! A sign at the departure lounge said it all: pariwara. I didn’t know what it was in Bahasa Indonesia, but in Tagalog it meant “misguided” or “up to no good”, exactly how I felt at that time. Long story short, I ended up paying IDR150,000 (about $17) to the grim-faced immigration officer without receipt just to get out of the country. The amount was almost equal to my round-trip (Jakarta-Jogjakarta) Air Asia ticket! Perhaps this was my karma for getting a student discount at Prambanan by showing my school ID, not as a student but as a teacher. Anyhow, a measly stapler could’ve saved me all the drama. That burst the Jakarta bubble I was in.