Drinking In Jakarta: Dodging Expat Drool In Search Of Refreshment
, March 6th, 2009 08:05
Our man in Indonesia discovers the seedier side of expat life as he heads into the Jakarta night to satisfy his bibulous urges
"Before you go, Bobby, consider this – if Henry VIII had had some proper bloody sperm in his tube he wouldn't have fallen out with the Vatican. And England would be Catholic – we'd all have been Catholics. He could've spent an entire month down at Blok M and still not conceived a son." I take leave of my laughing, bearded Englishman co-diner and set off round the corner - initially for Jalan Jaksa, with the vague plan of ending up in Blok M at some point before the night is over already beginning to charm its way into my mind alongside the residue of an addictive local dangdut tune. Blok M is the place where any man with an ocean of Bintangs washing around his belly, and receiving the usual orders from Mr Tadger down below, inevitably homes in on when the sun goes down. Apparently, Brewer's Droop does not exist in Indonesia.
Jalan Jaksa is a narrow street of cheap backpacker hotels and basic bars in central Jakarta. Some of them have the luxury of air conditioning. You can have a good night out popping in for a beer here, there and everywhere, and aside from the obligatory winding round the bajajs, taxis, shoeshine boys, whores and food sellers, you don't have to walk too far. This is wonderful since, in a lot of smaller Indonesian cities, finding a decent bar in this mainly Muslim country is literally like finding a needle in haystack. All the bars on Jaksa sell lager at supermarket prices: that's about 21,000 rupiahs for a large bottle of Bintang, not bad at all for a beverage some allege can repel mosquitoes. And yes, even the poorest people in Indonesia are often technically millionaires. There's also strong Foreign Extra Guinness, reasonable bar snacks coated in the most fiery chilli sauce, an ample supply of pool tables and the usual range of Indonesian women trying to attach themselves to anything with a white skin. No surprise then that it's also home to the more eccentric yet endearing alcohol-sodden expats - manic teachers, journalists, illegal immigrants, people who've been here decades and can't even remember when or why they came.
My first port of call is Cafe Betawi, a somewhat shabby, dimly-lit hostelry midway along the street. On the modest stage, an Indonesian chap plays a cheap Casio-type keyboard, fooling around with the joystick with great virtuosity. The lightshow is enchanting yet disorientating – numerous colourful, enraged spiny puffer objects circulate the floor which appears as a primeval rainbow swamp. A female singer grabs hold of the mic and..."Yo ka dans, Yo kan dans, Hawin day tem o yo laaaaf." It's 'Dancing Queen' (Jakarta version) and it is quite simply superb. A few Australian year-out travellers start dancing and short Indonesian men stare at the blondes in disbelief. It's time for a piss. Out I go, past the various Western flags, pencil drawings of well-endowed bare-breasted women, and a grimy fishpool. The toilets look unfinished – thick lumpy cement walls, and the usual uneven, soaked floor and weird pots of water and jetsprays for splashing one's anus. It's a shell of a building - like they forgot to clear up after Krakatoa went beserk.
The bills are always a bit of a surprise. You pay at the end, when you're about to move on, not drink by drink. So, drinks finished, I cough up the hundred thousand or so and pop over the road to the street bar Memories. You can't get much more on-the-street than this, what with stools cluttering up that thing you'd call a pavement in London, so Western travellers get herded in easily. Fat white chaps with moustaches sit with ladies of the night who have seen better days – conducting fascinating yet vulgar and ultimately demeaning symbiotic relationships. A hideous bony white man – a slender, Dutch Rab C Nesbitt, if you will - perches on a stool with a local girl on each arm. I smile at the prettier girl with him. Within 30 seconds, a waiter-cum-go-between brings over a note for me with her number on it and a message: "call me – ta". When you first arrive here it really does seem like a permanent hallucination. No wonder you end up on death row for bringing in hard drugs – it's incredibly heady enough just standing around on the street.
Down at my favourite bar, Absolute, they stick on some Roxy Music for me, but the place is deserted so I leave Jaksa behind and hail a green and orange Koperasi cab down to the Jaya Pub on Jalan Thamrin. Jaya is the oldest pub in Jakarta and it also possesses by far the most atmosphere in this part of town, as its rival establishments are in expensive malls. You might as well be sat in McDonalds in Milton Keynes with all the lights turned off. The mall bars also have 'PR girls' who later text you to try and coax you down to buy the resident girls a drink so that they'll sit with you and help you empty your wallet via endless Long Islands. At least in the earthier Jakarta dens the women are 'self-employed'. More old chaps with young ladies cavort around the Jaya, and an Indonesian group plays 'Englishman In New York'.
It's nothing compared to Blok M, though: the part of town where "ojek, mister?" becomes "blowjob, mister?" The expats in Blok M are generally the worst sort. Vile, bloated, balding Australian morons, Dutch loudmouths and American business oafs stomp the floor of Top Gun and grope about with girls young enough to be their grandchildren. And, yes, some of them are definitely underage, in British legal terms. These guys couldn't give a shit, of course, but it is difficult to tell - girls you think are about nineteen often turn out to be older than you are. Eyes, tongues and bellies bulging, hands on hips, the old men have to fight off the large pack of whores who descend upon, and do battle over, a fat wallet. The chaps are drunken, self-consumed and overwhelmed. Granted, they couldn't pick a much better place to feel like a God for the evening, but back in the real world you get the feeling these chaps are pretty desperate, lonely beings.
You wonder just what these old guys want from the young ladies. Have they, perhaps after a failed marriage in the West, written off the possibility of a genuine relationship of depth? The women, it is clear, are after money, and are under the mistaken impression that anything white with a belly for two must have more than enough of the stuff. The lengths they will go to find out is at times astounding. They are also under the illusion that life in the West is just fantastic. For some, perhaps it really could be. Many Indonesians haven't left Indonesia, and I guess it's only natural to want to find out more about this domineering culture that the US feeds them through the TV. The other interesting thing is that any Indonesian girl hanging around with a white guy - known as bule (pronounced "boo-lay"), literally 'albino' - is typically viewed by other Indonesians as a probable money-grabber. Generally, the Blok M girls don't seem to care who they end up with, as long as they get some 'taxi money' in the morning. There's even a popular saying in Java, "no money, no honey", which in capitalist terms at least equals the horrid realities found in the West. But let's be clear, these scenarios are quite different from the genuinely romantic cross-cultural relationships that grow in other, less boozy, places in the capital.
The climate in Jakarta is responsible for so much of the way of life here. It's easy to become lazy, almost impossible to stick to schedules and you have to be very focused to do anything that requires a vast amount of brain or body power or alertness. Your metabolism speeds up too, food is digested much faster and hangovers are very, very different. To begin with I seemed to be invincible. No longer was the morning after a time of existential despair, confusion and nausea. Now, although becoming more and more astounded as my time here progresses, I just spend the next day being incredibly lazy and then ambling over to the office, probably already thinking about the next night.