A Whiff of Whimsy: Saying Goodbye to Jakarta for Adventures Unknown

*Jakarta Globe, Sept 2009

One Sunday in August, I decided to be a traveling farmer. To throw caution to the wind and abandon the cerebral life of a journalist for earthly toil. Fleeing the city for the woods and fields, my daily routine of interviews, chasing stories and nights of musing and tapping away on a computer is being swapped for scooping up chicken poop in Ecuador, milking cows in California, turning pigs into pork in England and riding camels in Austria.

Yet, as I embark on my camel-riding, cow-milking and poop-scooping journey across three continents, I have the feeling that Jakarta will be tagging along with me.

My Jakarta is like a woman many men fear: chaotic, wild, superficial, flighty, rough, sensual, insincere, imbued with possibilities but ultimately desirable. She is as varied as her culinary street fare and saccharine delights. She is the many faces of Eve. Not the girl you’d take home to mom, but the one you’d regret not dancing the jitterbug with at the prom. She is both the honking and clanking of Jalan Sudirman and the pockets of calm and croaking crickets of old Menteng.

Living in the city is a practice in adoration.

It is about finding the reckless freedom within the chaos of her streets, sensing her from the lowest depths of Citarum River’s 300 kilometers of sludge, dirt and garbage to the refrigerated malls of entertainment that have pimpled the skyline in the south, and encountering the resilience, warmth and, at times, dreamy nature of her inhabitants.

She is that capricious child who brings to mind the delightful poetry of E.E. Cummings that swoops and dips and swings, breaking all the rules.

She is the very epitome of Walt Whitman’s “One Hour To Madness and Joy,” the very trembling of that poem if read aloud, in defiance to all those who condemn her.

One of the last memories I have of my hometown is the Indonesian capital in the throes of a Friday lunch hour. Riding an ojek , frantically heading for the Dutch Embassy to obtain my all-too troublesome Schengen visa, I shut my eyes. With the view of the rush-hour traffic gone, I was hit not only by a cacophony of sounds but a riot of smells. A blurt of a diesel engine sputtering smoke, a tantalizing lick of roadside snacks simmering in oil and the heavy warm air of noon, with farting buses, tweeting cars and the dangerously flirty growl of motorbikes. I couldn’t help myself. I took a deep breath. I inhaled Jakarta, with her menagerie of congested traffic, smoke, cloves, gorengan , leaves, asphalt and dust. And for those five seconds, as the pollution swamped my lungs and the city rang in my ears, I felt one with the glorious, multifaceted beast that is Jakarta.

At night, the metropolis is a lady. She smolders quietly. Bedecked with neon, tungsten and fluorescent lights from the streets and skyscrapers, she has that sexy after-sex glow.

I have always loved cities at night. They have a different aura, sense and vibe. During the witching hour, Jakarta is at the height of her beauty. Emptied of her usual inhabitants, her streets seem as wide as the desert highways in a Gus Van Sant movie. The air smelling as pure as a baby’s breath. At night, Jakarta feels most like home.

But for all the love I have for this city, I am still taking off on a jet plane. It wasn’t time to grow my roots just yet.

A few years ago, on the verge of his third decade, a friend took a leap toward safety and security. I, on the other hand, realizing I was settled and comfortable, chose to throw a life of sluggish ease, air-conditioned living and wonderful companionship to the wind.

Comfort to me is a dangerous quagmire, luring me in to schlep around in a chair of life, as snug as a blue-and-white fabric sofa from Ikea that I once had.

There are, after all, many ways to live. It can be by digging your heels deep into a career, building a family and a home, or buying that expensive pair of ripped Dolce & Gabbana jeans to stave off a quarter-life crisis. It can also entail working in eco-villages in South America, being a festival manager in New York City, shooting a documentary in Uganda, going to a book reading by Michael Ondaatje, swimming in the Seychelles or greeting the Inuit of Alaska with an Eskimo kiss.

With these myriad of choices in mind, I am allocating myself a year of whimsy.

A wise colleague once said he saw his old self in me — the one that meandered, like a river yet to find its mouth.

“One day,” he said, “you’ll find your mouth of the river.”

Sometimes I do long to be still. But for now, I’ll flow.

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

columnsTitania Veda