The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Jakarta's paradise for marmalade moggies

Our normal pied-a-trottoir in Jakarta is an alleged three-star hotel off Jalan Raden Saleh. It’s favored by Arabs disinterested in anything other than the local ladies.

The accommodation is cheap and clean and the extra curricular activities add spice lacking in grander hostelries. The short-stay visitors don’t speak Indonesian and their friends don’t know Arabic but as the poets say, love conquers all. The riyals also help.

This time we’re in Menteng and the difference is like moving from the steaming swamps of Jayapura to the cool heights of Mt Bromo.

I’d like to report this as an exercise in finding out how the other half lives, but in reality it’s discovering how half of 0.01 per cent of the population thrives in colonial grandeur.

Cliché recyclers usually describe Menteng as a ‘leafy suburb’, but the evergreen menteng, also known as Burmese grapes, are now rarely found.

There are plenty of other trees, but the real attraction is the solid Dutch architecture that has so far resisted the Philistines who see little of merit in the steep tiled roofs, shuttered windows and whitewashed walls of a Euro-centric past.

To live in Menteng is to jump back in time. Soekarno told the Dutch to go to hell, but it seems they just hibernated in Menteng, waiting for the political climate to change.

Actually there are more Javanese in our villa than wrinkled ex-imperialists. But the latter control the soundscape, shouting greetings as though they’re the far side of a canal and not in the same narrow corridor of hard ceramic where consonants ricochet and vowels skate off the polished tiles.

The locals have learned how to shuffle, to be spare in manners and movements, to keep the pace slow. Menteng is a fine place to refine the Indonesian art of energy conservation.

Traffic is so calm it’s even safe to cross the streets without first getting three insurance quotes. The Hondas are muffled by a sense of reverence for the place and its up-market residents. Even the mosques use quietspeakers.

The Australian ambassador lives nearby close to the Vietnamese; across the road are the Saudis and Iraqis. If they used their lovely surrounds for a street party maybe the Middle East protests and the asylum seeker issues could be sorted out under the soothing perfume of the frangipani.

There’s certainly good reason to celebrate. A century ago this year architect PAJ Moojen designed Menteng as Jakarta’s first garden city.

Sadly, in keeping with the new AD (Age of Distrust) recent residents have done their bit to destroy the planner’s inclusive vision by excluding outsiders with high walls and steel screens.

Fortunately casual servants leave gates ajar as they gather around roadside snack vendors after saluting their bosses farewell. And the slow sliding gates that release black Mercedes leave time to gape.

The police, bored brainless, are happy to chat, treating twilight strollers like human beings with no agenda other than to enjoy the environment.

This includes marmalade cats, pixie-faced beauties, confident they’re in a moggy’s paradise. Westerners fear the cruising full-helmet motorcyclists but they love their prowling pets.

These lynx-like lovelies are several species removed from their kinky-tailed cousins that hang around kampongs quivering with fear, for there’s little kindness towards cats elsewhere.

Menteng’s cats are regal, as befits creatures that patrol this Alice in Wonderland world, with its mysterious little openings in the rusting fences and crumbling concrete, creeper-festooned gateways to dank and curious places.

The embassy courtyards are swept by movement sensors, monitored by cameras, but high tech cannot reach the musty nooks and crannies where the pussies prowl, knowing the secrets.

Outside the Australian fortress squatted a thin man carefully smoothing out yesterday’s papers for resale. Does the ambassador ever offer a cheery wave, as befits a neighbor when he comes and goes?

Stupid question. Bemused response. Poor fellow – he might get recognised if, like Dick Whittington, he befriended a cat, preferably marmalade. Even then I doubt he’ll ever make Lord Mayor.

Menteng is many things, but it’s not egalitarian.


1 comment:

-A. said...

Quite a brilliant take on Menteng, my home for nearly three weeks now.

Wandering along Jalan Diponegoro, admiring the embassies and swank houses, is a wonderful way to spend an hour or two on a weekend afternoon.

At the risk of sounding like another Menteng wanker, it really is a pleasure to live here.