Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Batavia – The Old Capital in Jakarta’s Kota

A piece of Batavia, the Dutch "city" outside The Netherlands, now called "Jakarta".

I have to be honest. Prior to this recent visit, I wasn’t too fond of Jakarta although I adore the locals for their exceeding hospitality, they’d give the Filipinos a run for their money. The city used to repel me: too many fake Bluebird taxis, smog all throughout the day, litter in every corner of the metropolis, smoke filled avenues both outdoors and indoors, transvestites and prostitutes when night falls, exorbitant accommodation rates in dingy holes in the wall. Then there’s heavy traffic – something that vigorously campaigns as Asia’s worst.
But if you go back to Indonesia’s colorful history, you’d find there’s a lot to sink your teeth into. There’s one word in my mind that flashes frantically like a beaming green light: Batavia!

Jam! Thamrin Road stagnates!

Batavia is the old name of Jakarta when they were under the Dutch rule for some 300 years, but it was really the Portuguese who “found” this as a trading port in the early parts of the 4th century – decades before the Dutch set foot in Indonesia.
Once settled, the Dutch built fortresses and walls around Batavia, constructing affluent mansions and “pestilential” canals within the “compound.” History would have them move the capital to Bandung, then back again to Batavia. When the Japanese occupied the city for 3 years, they renamed it “Djakarta” which sort of stuck! The opposing forces meanwhile set up their own “capital” way down south – in Yogyakarta. But with its eventual independence, Jakarta reclaimed its capital status!
What was left of Batavia is pretty concentrated around what is now called “Kota” – a district of Jakarta that literally means “Old Square” (Old Town). In this crumbling piece of historical clutter rises Dutch-era colonial buildings that quickly reminisce the old glory of The Netherlands' iron-fist in the Pacific.
Though I have been to Kota a few years back, I was able to visit a different part of Kota, walking all the way to the Portuguese port of Sunda Kelapa!

Jakarta History Museum at Taman Fatahillah in Kota.

This time around, upon arriving back in Jakarta from Solo, I couldn’t resist the thought of seeing the more popular part of Kota described by Lonely Planet. Luckily, I was given a room at Margot as early as 8:30AM – with no extra charge (check-in time is 11AM). I relished on a long warm shower that felt more relaxing than my sleep from my Bima train. I forced myself to take a 1 hour nap, then by 11AM, I was already walking along Jalan Hasyim, intent on feeding myself before finding Kota.

I found a little diner called Soto Tangkan and started pointing to a photo up the wall. The Chinese lady was so pleased to have her first customer she practically gave the food for free: 5,000 Rp – which is a ridiculously cheap PhP25 worth (about $0.50) – nasi putih (steamed rice), soto (a kind of soup admixed with chicken and vegetables) and a fragrant tea that had the aftertaste of Jasmine! I took note and told myself I’d come back here tomorrow (but I wasn’t that lucky the next day – I was already charged the regular price of 15,000Rp). While waiting for my order, I was surprised to hear what was blaring loudly across the street – Freddie Aguilar wistfully singing “Anak” (Child) played alongside Billy Joel’s “Honesty” and other standards (from a store called Rumah Makan Padang).

After brunch, I aimlessly walked around until I reached Thamrin Road, their Ayala Avenue. I was debating with myself. Should I take the taxi to Kota? LP and people said it would take around 30,000Rp by taxi. However, I was able to go to Kota 4-5 years ago – on a public bus – way back when I was a sniveling ignoramus. Why can’t I do that again? There’s really an easy solution: ask the locals!

I found the Transjakarta station near the Bank of Indonesia. I walked through its snaky platform and inquired. "This is the Bank of Indonesia station, get a ticket from here and your last stop is Kota," I was instructed. So instead of venturing on an uncertain taxi ride that would cost me a minimum of 30,000Rp (PhP150 - $3.5), I paid for a very comfortable, traffic-free Transjakarta bus that only cost me 2,500Rp (PhP12 - $0.25)! Cool huh!

We passed through Glodok (the ill reputed Chinatown) until we reached Kota! This was Quiapo territory – or London’s Brixton. People scurry around like paranoid rats. It took me several times to finally get to the right direction, I was walking north and south, east and west. The area soon transformed into immaculate white colonial buildings. Further along, I crossed a horribly busy street (crossing was hell) until I reached a canal. This was the area I was looking for. I found a solitary vendor parked beside the canal. I bought a bottle of Coke and rested awhile. The vendor pointed me somewhere to get to Taman Fatahillah (Fatahillah Square). It was like popping into a magical place as the narrow streets turned into a beautiful square. Suddenly, I wasn't the only soul walking the slumbering sideways.

Si Jagur aka "Mr. Fertility", an old portuguese canon, believed to be a cure for "barrenness".

Fatahillah Square is surrounded by old colonial buildings that now house museums and touristy cafes like Café Batavia. Jakarta History Museum was hosting a Lithographic exhibition which occupied me for a good 2 hours. Si Jagur sits right across the history museum; a canon believed to have magical powers to cure infertility – and also thought to be the early version of the phallic Monas found at the Freedom Square. Women who wanted children had to sit on this canon in order to bear a child. But what caught my eye was the stately Fine Arts Museum boasting of grandiose white columns. What surprised me: Fine Arts Museum was empty! I was the only one there despite its free entrance! Meanwhile, Jakarta History Museum was teeming with visitors (entrance fee: 2,000Rp or PhP10 or $0.22).

I found a line of vendors selling coconut juice (buko) – 3,000Rp (PhP13), and another selling mangoes – 5,000Rp (PhP24). I just helped myself despite my fast dwindling rupiah.

Outside Taman Fatahillah, the buildings were in various stages of decay, which was really sad. It is possible that with passage of time, this part of town will eventually cease to exist.

Gereja Sion or Dutch Reformed Church is the oldest remaining church in Jakarta, and despite LP’s description that it is “nearby Taman Fatahillah”, it was quite a walk! You have to move away from the square and head towards the local train station (Kota Station), walk further ahead, then cross a fatally risky, albeit busy thoroughfare to get to Jalan Perengan Jayakarta. This church had a “colorful” past. It was built in 1695, and “black slaves” brought by the Dutch navigators were promised freedom if they profess their faith to this church. Unfortunately for me, it was closed when I got there.

Fine Arts Museum, also in Fatahillah Square, showcases contemporary works. Unfortunately, this museum is largely ignored despite the fact that entrance is free. I was the only visitor. I was asked to write my name on a guest logbook. Refurbishments were also on-going.

One of the contemporary pieces seen at the Fine Arts Museum.

While I made my way back to the Transjakarta Station, I knew I needed to just cool down and relax. It had drizzled and I was feeling the strains of the non-stop travel. That night, I had a date with Hermione, Ron and Harry at Cinema 21 at 20,000Rp (PhP97.50 or $2.20) and a satisfying KFC meal. I’ve been craving for their original recipe chicken for weeks now, but inhibited myself from doing so. The price: a weird 28,868Rp (or PhP153 - $3.50). Can’t they round it off?
This is the Eye in the Sky!

Decrepit buildings of times long gone.


Siddhartha Joshi said...

this is a really nice post, great description and nice images :)

nice blog!

Siddhartha Joshi said...

have added u to the list of blogs i read regularly :)

eye in the sky said...

Thanks, Sidd. It's hard to choose representative images from long text. It's like picking 1 apple from a basket of harvest. :->

Frangipan said...

I love the part about the arts museum and the picture of the decrepit building, thanks for visiting my blog.

eye in the sky said...

@ Frangipan: It's the stark contrast between the two. And thanks for your visit. :->